Where is the Equity? How States Have Disproportionately Underfunded Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

by Jayla Carr

A group of logos of Historically Black College & University teams. Source: Yahoo Image

 

According to the United States Department of Education and Agriculture, sixteen states have underfunded their state’s land-grant, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), by more than $13 billion over the last thirty years. A land grant college or university is an institution designated by the state legislature to receive benefits under the  Morrill Acts of 1890 and 1994. The act’s passing was to ensure that higher education would be accessible to all and not only wealthy individuals, being that before 1892, many of the United States institutes for Higher Education were privately funded and selective of who they allowed. It gave states the power to sell federal land to establish Public Institutions.

If HBCUs do not receive equitable funding, it can perpetuate inequities in educational outcomes and opportunities for underrepresented minority students. Understanding the history of HBCUs is essential to appreciate the significance of addressing underfunding. Many of these institutions were founded to address historical injustices, and chronic underfunding perpetuates these disparities, reinforcing the notion that Black students deserve fewer resources and opportunities than their white counterparts.

Two black students looking at a device in a classroom
Two students are looking at a device in a classroom. Source: Yahoo Images

The History of HBCUs

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have a rich history of providing education to Black men and women in the United States. They emerged in the early 19th century, with institutions like Cheyney University of Pennsylvania in 1836 and Lincoln University in 1854 initially focusing on teacher training.  Over time, these institutions broadened their curricula and became vital education centers for Black individuals, offering various academic programs.

During the Jim Crow era, which lasted from the late 19th century into the mid-20th century, racial segregation laws enforced strict separation of Black and White individuals in public facilities, including schools. Predominantly white institutions were often closed to Black students, and even if they were nominally open, they were often unwelcoming and discriminatory. HBCUs filled this void by providing Black students access to higher education when other options were limited or nonexistent. These institutions offered a safe and nurturing environment where Black individuals could pursue education and intellectual growth. However, these institutions have faced persistent challenges, including funding disparities that hinder their mission of providing equitable education. State funding policies that allocate resources to public higher education institutions are at the heart of these disparities.

A group of people wearing graduation gowns and caps standing in front of a building.
A group of people wearing graduation gowns and caps stands in front of a building. Source: Yahoo Images

Addressing the Disparities

In the letters sent to the governors of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, North Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. The Department of Education highlights the importance of HBCUs. The underinvestment of these institutions should be addressed, given that these institutions generate close to $15 billion and have considerable impacts on the predominantly black communities they serve.

The letter addressed to Governor Kay Ivey of Alabama, the Department of Education highlights the stark contrast between Alabama A&M University, the state’s first land-grant institution for African Americans, and Auburn University, the state’s first original land-grant institution, noting the differences in infrastructure and researching which Miguel Cardona, U.S Secretary of Education talks on saying that “Unacceptable funding inequities have forced many of our nation’s distinguished Historically Black Colleges and Universities to operate with inadequate resources and delay critical investments in everything from campus infrastructure to research and development to student support services.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, HBCUs have seen a massive enrollment increase despite a national decrease in college enrollments. During an interview with PBS News Hour, the President of Spelman College, an HBCU all-women’s college, Dr. Helene Gayle, attributed the increase in enrollment to an entire generation of young African Americans who have witnessed historic events. The inauguration of the first Black President of the United States, and the rise of movements such as Black Lives Matter and numerous instances of social injustice have motivated and encouraged young people to seek higher education in environments where they are surrounded by their community.

The increase in enrollment has caused some issues for many HBCUS, one being the need for more housing spaces to accommodate the influx of students. Tennessee State University has the most known case, with the university having to rent out five hotels for the 2022-2023 academic year. This has caused the Tennessee State Comptroller to come in and audit the University and their financial practices. Their report found that TSU had a “lack of planning, management, and sound decision-making.” TSU’s financial decisions play a part in the case. Still, one cannot deny that Tennessee underfunding Tennessee State University $2,147,784,704, the most of any other state, plays a role in their shortcomings. The University of Tennessee, the state’s original land grant-funded institution, has sixteen housing halls in Comparison to Tennessee State’s eight housing halls, including one that just opened in August of 2022.

A white building with a star and a blue graduation cap
A white building with a star and a blue graduation cap. Source: U.S Department of Education

Why HBCUs Matter

HBCUs have a rich history of contributing to research and innovation, often focusing on underrepresented areas in mainstream academia. Unfortunately, underfunding hampers their ability to invest in research projects, labs, and faculty development, affecting their capacity to compete for research grants and produce groundbreaking work. This lack of funding also hurts equity by limiting the contributions of Black professionals and academics in research, innovation, and industries like STEM.

Adequate funding is crucial for maintaining high educational standards, hiring qualified faculty, and offering up-to-date resources and facilities. When HBCUs receive less funding, it can lead to overcrowded classrooms, outdated technology, and limited course offerings. The disparity in educational quality can perpetuate inequities, particularly in the context of historically Black colleges and universities.

HBCUs have historically served as a pathway to higher education for Black students who were often excluded from predominantly white institutions due to racial segregation and discrimination. Inadequate funding can restrict their capacity to enroll and support students, limiting access to quality education. This impacts equity, making it harder for Black students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, to pursue higher education and achieve social mobility.

Underfunded HBCUs may receive a different education and preparation for future opportunities than students at well-funded institutions. Therefore, providing adequate funding to HBCUs is essential for promoting equity and ensuring Black students have access to quality education and opportunities.

A group of people celebrating in front of a building
A group of people celebrating in front of a building. Source: Yahoo Image

Support HBCUs

Growing up, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by the pride and tradition of HBCUs. Being a native of Birmingham, Alabama, I have had the pleasure of experiencing the biggest HBCU football game, The Magic City Classic, every year. The way the community comes together to support their teams, regardless of the weather, is truly a unique and unforgettable experience.

Funding HBCUs appropriately not only demonstrates a commitment to inclusivity and solidarity with marginalized communities. These institutions are essential to a more just and prosperous future for all, as they continue to play a vital role in American education and culture. By recognizing the pivotal role of state funding policies, we can work towards a more equitable future where HBCUs receive the resources they need to provide quality education and continue their legacy of empowerment and opportunity. Public policy decisions at the state and federal levels directly impact HBCUs funding, support, and overall well-being. Advocacy, engagement with policymakers, and developing equitable policies are essential to addressing funding disparities and promoting equity in higher education for HBCUs.

 

Here is the list of every federal government-recognized HBCU in the United States. If there is one close to you, I encourage you to support one in any way you can, whether going to a sporting event or donating.

Environmental Rights = Human Rights: Water As a Human Right

An image of waterfalls, an important water system that helps filter the waterways.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image of waterfalls, an important water system that helps filter the waterways.

Human rights are dependent on the environment, and we can address many environmental rights issues to bring about a better world for all those who live on this green and blue planet that we call home. In this sense, environmental rights ARE human rights, and taking a human rights approach to addressing these environmental rights can close the gaps of inequality between the Global North and the Global South countries. I am dedicating a series to deep dive into this human rights approach to environmental rights. We began this series by focusing on how issues around food can be addressed with a human rights approach. This blog will focus on water, another essential need for all living things, and how issues surrounding access to clean water can be addressed with a human rights approach.

Uses of Water

A pie chart showcasing how much freshwater and saltwater there is on Earth.
Source: Yahoo Images; A pie chart showcasing how much freshwater and saltwater there is on Earth.

Similar to food, water is also another resource necessary for all living creatures, including humans. Organisms need water to survive and function, even in the driest places on Earth. Humans need water for survival, not just to quench our thirst, but also to cook our food, and clean ourselves and our spaces. To maintain this modern civilization we live in, humans also require water for various industrial purposes, including watering the crops we consume, providing water for the livestock that we make use of, hygienic purposes, and even washing the clothes we wear. In fact, water is required for industrial use as well, including in the clothing and textile industries, mining industries, the process of oil drilling, and many more. Not having access to clean water can cause illnesses, rashes, and even death, both to humans and the organisms that live in areas with unclean water.

Although this planet is made up largely of water, it is a natural resource that is limited. Its limitations come from the fact that 97% of the water found on Earth is contained in the oceans, which are made up of salt water. Saltwater is unsafe for consumption because our kidneys are not capable of filtering all the salt out of the water, and as a result, drinking it can have the opposite effect you want to achieve, including dehydration and eventual death. Only 3% of the water found on Earth is freshwater and safe for consumption. This 3%, therefore, is what is used for all of our personal, industrial, and agricultural needs, and this same 3% also has to be shared with the many creatures we live alongside on this planet. Even still, much of that 3% of fresh water is also frozen in the form of ice caps and glaciers or contained in the atmosphere and soils. So, in reality, we only have about 0.5% of the Earth’s water source for all of our needs and those of our fellow Earth dwellers.

Consequences of Using Unclean Water

The current way we treat our water supplies and our environment can have drastic impacts on our lives, the lives of other organisms, as well as the future of this planet. We have seen what happened in Flint Michigan and Jackson, Mississippi, and the struggles the individuals in those places are going through just to be able to have clean drinking water. For those who are not familiar with these incidents, from 2014 to around 2016, residents in Flint, Michigan were consuming water that was polluted with lead. This occurred due to the negligence and carelessness of the local government, which failed to treat and test the river water. The Flint River, which was the major source of drinking water, was polluted due to the high industrial usage along its coasts and was also polluted by agricultural usage, sewage from the waste plants, and even pollutants from the nearby landfills. This incident caused health issues among the residents, and incredible levels of lead were found in consumers, including the city’s children. Something similar occurred in Jackson, Mississippi, and this issue is ongoing even today. The issues of busted pipes during cold-winter days, and the leakage of sewage among other things, were listed as the cause of the Jackson water crisis. In both these cities, many of the residents are people of color, and this has larger racial implications for the issues of access to clean and fresh water (which will be covered in later parts of this series).

Average Water Consumption

An infographic depicting the various household uses of water, how much it is costing us, and some best practices of conservation.
Source: Yahoo Images

All this does not even include the wasteful nature of water consumption that we in the Western nations have normalized. To put things into perspective, for each minute we spend showering, we are using 2.5 gallons of water. So, for a 10-minute shower, that is 25 gallons of water that are used. Each time we flush the toilet, we use 1.6 gallons of water, with older toilets taking as much as 3.5 gallons a flush (or even 5-7 gallons a flush for toilets made before 1985). When washing clothes in the washer, Americans use over 40 gallons of water per load. Washing dishes by hand uses another 20 gallons of water per load while washing dishes in an efficient dishwasher uses around 4 gallons. This does not include the water that is used to water the lawn, household plants, or other uses like cooking food and cleaning the house.

Negligent Water Practices – Sewage Systems, Bottled Water, and Environmental Water Disasters

Our waterways are not only impacted by chemical leaks and our water consumption but also by the way we process our human wastes and that of our livestock. Agricultural runoffs happen when sediments containing chemicals, bacteria, and manure runoff into the nearby waterways from heavy rains and flooding, causing an increase of nitrogen and phosphorous in the waters. Too much nitrogen and phosphorous in the waters can be very harmful to marine life because these elements cause an increase in algae growth, a process known as eutrophication. This may not seem so bad, but too many algae in the water can block the sunlight and oxygen from reaching the organisms on the bottom layer of the water. This in turn leads to hypoxia, a condition where the oxygen levels in the water decrease and can cause the death of many marine organisms. Similar to agricultural runoffs, human sewage also has high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous, and any leaks from sewage treatment facilities and other industrial factories that use similar chemicals can further threaten marine biology. For more information about water insecurity in America and how the sewage system exacerbates this issue, click here.

Another wasteful practice we engage in as humans are our production and consumption of bottled water. For one, the process used to make single-use plastic water bottles releases over 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide into the environment every year. Additionally, the process uses 17 million barrels of oil to meet the consumer demands for these plastic bottles. After consumption, the water bottles are rarely recycled, resulting in the addition of 38 billion water bottles to landfills. 10% of all discarded plastics end up in the ocean, a threat to aquatic life. Furthermore, consuming water from plastic bottles comes with its own health consequences, including the bioaccumulation of microplastics in our systems. Many companies also use a type of plastic (#7) that contains bisphenol A (BPA), which has many health concerns associated with them, including diabetes, heart conditions, developmental issues, and fertility issues, and can even lead to cancer. This type of plastic is actually banned in many nations around the world but is still allowed in the US.

In addition to all these issues, the water bottle industry is also a perpetrator of human rights violations, with Aquafina, Dasani, and Nestle, being the largest water bottling companies in the world. Bottling companies transform a free, naturally available resource, into a profit-making commodity. In the process, they are actually harming the water sources in the locations in which their manufacturing and bottling occur, forcing the people that live in those areas to consume bottled water, not as a choice, but as the only source of clean water available to them. For those who cannot afford water bottles, water insecurity becomes a daily reality from which they cannot escape. The insidious part of this issue is the fact that many of these bottling factories exist outside of Western nations, in countries such as India, Fiji, and other underdeveloped nations in which the residents cannot (or do not have the resources) to fight back against these corporations, an approach that can only be characterized as environmental racism. For those factories that do exist within Western nations, they are predominantly located near neighborhoods of color. The CEO of Nestlé faced backlash in 2013 for announcing that water is not a human right, but a product to be privatized and sold. This privatization of water denies these local communities the right to use the resource for their own residential, industrial, and infrastructural use, and further exacerbates their conditions of poverty and water insecurity.

Anthropogenic (caused by humans) activities have caused many of our ecosystem services to be polluted, including our water sources. We as humans have allowed many chemicals to leak into the waterways, sewage, and other waste products to run off into the streams and have done a poor job taking care of our groundwater, aqueducts, and aquafers. There has been recent news of chemicals from the train derailment in Ohio entering the waterways and causing local residents to become sick. Last year, there was a story about the US military leaking jet fuel, contaminating the waterways in Hawaii. Much of the nuclear waste we produce gets stored in containers underground, and these containers cannot hold radioactive waste for too long. At times the contents seep out, polluting the groundwater. The Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world’s largest aquifers that serves much of Central America, has been threatened by the installment of the Keystone XL pipeline, which is an oil pipeline, that if it bursts, can pollute the entire aquifer, contaminating the water used by people across eight states. These are just some of many incidents in that we as humanity have failed to protect our naturally occurring ecosystem services, which, if we had to recreate, would cost us trillions and trillions of dollars.

Water is a Human Right

An image of the water cycle
Source: Yahoo Images; An image of the water cycle

Along with food, water is also listed as a human right in Article 25 of the UDHR. Although water is considered a renewable resource, it is a limited one. The reason water is considered a renewable resource is because of the water cycle, which is the various steps of a cycle the water goes through, (evaporation, transpiration, condensation, precipitation, and runoff) that recycle the water that we use. Evaporation happens from the major bodies of water, when the heat transforms the liquid water into a gaseous form. Transpiration happens in forests and plants, when water moves through the plant into the atmosphere, to move nutrients and cool the parts of the plants that are exposed to the sun. Condensation occurs when the water evaporated into the air ends up filling up the clouds, changing the water vapors into a liquid form again. Precipitation is what comes next when the collected vapors fall back onto the ground, such as rain, snow, or ice. This precipitation is dispersed in many ways, from the waterways to the land. Finally, runoff refers to the water flow on the surface level, below the surface level, or even into the depths of the Earth. Simply put, runoff is water that has not been soaked into the soil. Yet, while on paper, water seems to be a renewable resource, in practice, water is polluted in many ways. Due to the current human lifestyles, clean water has become a limited resource, and our continued negligence on this subject will only exacerbate this issue.

The Threat of Water Wars and Water as a Human Right

An image of a child in Kenya trying to find some clean water to drink.

Climate change is impacting everyone around the world, but disproportionately. The Global North benefits from an abundance of resources while the Global South, in many ways due to the history of imperialism, suffers the consequences of the Global North’s actions. Many people in the Global South face water insecurity on a daily basis, and this will only get worse as the Earth continues to warm up. By 2030, many countries in the warmest parts of the world will be uninhabitable. Apart from this, due to the rising temperatures, many of the bodies of water on Earth are drying up, further exacerbating the water issues already present. There are already feuds between China and India over the Brahmaputra River, one of the largest rivers in Asia.

One way to personally address this issue is to be mindful of our water usage. Yet, this alone will not be enough to address this problem on such a large scale. Countries around the world have to come together and find creative solutions to ensure that clean water is made accessible to everyone equally. This can be done through strategies that incorporate green infrastructure. In doing so, the strategies used to address these issues need to be inclusive of everyone, including being respectful of Native Americans and their many uses of water. Additionally, access to clean water does not just mean the ability to have clean water but it should also be affordable, regardless of where you live. In fact, water is one of those essential needs for every human being, and as a result, should be free, or nearly free to everyone. Finally, everyone should be educated on the various uses of water, and the need to maintain its cleanliness.

The Parisian Protests

paris city hall
(source: yahoo images)

Perhaps, recently, you have seen TikToks, videos, or news broadcasts discussing the ongoing protests in Paris. If you are not sure what is going on, do not fright. In this blog, I will discuss this topic and hopefully help bring to light what the current French demonstrations mean.

What is Article 49.3?

The Arc De Triomphe
(source: yahoo images)

Before we can get to discussing the protests in Paris, we must first talk about a crucial fact about the protests: the fact that they started due to a feature of the French Constitution. Article 49.3 of the French Constitution, put lightly, allows the government to push through a piece of legislation without the approval of France’s lower house of parliament, the National Assembly.

This legal maneuver is completely legal and has been in practice since 1958, when it was introduced by Charles De Gaulle. Despite this, many French citizens see Article 49.3 as undemocratic. This is not a surprising assertion, as using Article 49.3 forgoes one of the most rudimentary components of democracy—votes. 

However, the government is not completely unchecked. After Article 49.3 is used, lawmakers who oppose the published legislation have 24 hours to file a no-confidence motion against the government. A one-tenth majority amongst the lawmakers in the lower house is required for the motion to go to the floor where it is debated. For the next couple of days, debate and voting about the bill will take place amongst the politicians.

For the no-confidence motion to succeed and reject the bill, it must get an absolute majority of votes. That is, more than half of the lawmakers must vote to reject the bill pushed forward by Article 49.3. If the motion does not get an absolute majority, the motion fails and the bill remains.

Notably, successful no-confidence motions are rare in France. The reasoning for this is that a successful no-confidence bill not only stops a bill from being enacted, but removes the Prime Minister and Cabinet from office (the president remains). Due to this, many lawmakers who are loyal to their higher-ups in government may hesitant in voting in favor of the no-confidence motion, as it will end up “toppling” the government. 

Interestingly, since Article 49.3 was legitimized in 1958, only one successful no-confidence motion has ever passed. It was in 1962.

The Protests

Paris in the summertime
(source: yahoo images)

Now that we have constructed an understanding of the French legal system, we can look into exactly what has sparked protests and how Article 49.3 was involved. 

On March 16, 2023, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, pushed a bill via Article 49.3 that raised the retirement age in France from 62 to 64. This sparked widespread protests in Paris, the capital of France, as citizens deemed this move by Macron to be undemocratic. Allegedly, Macron used Article 49.3 because he calculated that his bill would not pass if it went to the National Assembly. Interestingly, it has been reported that this move was an unprecedented move by Macron, as even members of his own party urged him not to invoke Article 49.3.

As has been aforementioned, after Macron’s move, citizens took to the streets of Paris and began protesting. Garbage fires, road blockages, and even graffiti were some of the things conducted by the protestors. In fact, the protests were so widespread at some point that visitors arriving at Charles De Gaulle, France’s biggest airport, were unable to order rides into the city as roads were blocked. 

Therefore, it ought not to be surprising that lawmakers instantly filed a no-confidence motion against Macron and his bill. However, after debate and deliberation, the no-confidence motion was unsuccessful, which falls aligns with the motion’s typical fate. On March 20th, the motion was voted on and only received 278 votes out of the 287 votes required to nullify the bill and unseat the government. 

Moving Forward

Louvre museum
(source: yahoo images)

What the failure of the no-confidence motion means, we have yet to find out. However, what we do know is that moving forward, the bill proposing the change in the retirement age from 62 to 64 will become law. Currently, protests are still ongoing in Paris. Whether or not they will continue, we have yet to find out. Moreover, what lawmakers will do about the fact that their constituents are protesting a bill is also unknown. 

However, this series of events in France has raised a meaningful question: how much authority do the people of a nation have over the government? Should the people dictate how the government is run? Does government reflect the people, or do the people reflect the government? 

Empirically, it seems that the majority of the French oppose this bill. Yet, despite this, it was not only enacted by their president, but it failed to be overturned by lawmakers. However, if there is one motif the French have instilled in history, it is the motif of representation of the people. One only needs to look to the French Revolution, and all of the many revolutions afterward, to be remained of the fact that the French take pride in their nationality, and will simply not rest until the government reflects the ideals of the people. 

Want to interact with NGOs? Here are some to consider!

 

the earth being held by hands
(source: yahoo images)

Naturally, many human rights violations and atrocities leave one wondering, “What can I do to ensure these violations do not happen again?” Unfortunately, however, many don’t know how to help to support human rights and a lot of information online is convoluted. This in turn causes charities and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which seek to promote humanitarian efforts, to often get overshadowed by bad news.

In this blog, I will share notable charities and initiatives that one could support in an effort to make a difference in the world. 

Human Rights Watch

logo of Human Rights Watch
(source: yahoo images)

Human Rights Watch (HRW) is an organization that investigates and reports on human rights violations and atrocities throughout the world. The advocacy of Human Rights Watch, as said by them, is directed towards “governments, armed groups and businesses, pushing them to change or enforce their laws, policies and practices.” 

Moreover, Human Rights Watch does not accept any sort of funding from the government or corporations, as they seek to remain unbiased and bipartisan. The organization is complied of over 400 lawyers and human rights experts, and they would be a great organization to help out with donations.

Human Rights Watch prides itself on its transparency in its affairs, and it was thus awarded the Guidestar Platinum Seal of Transparency, an award given by an organization that “gathers, organizes, and distributes information about U.S nonprofits in an effort to advance transparency, enable users to make better decisions, and encourage charitable giving.”

Moreover, if that was not enough to show you the commitment of Human Rights Watch, allow us to make note that in 1997, they were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for helping create the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty — a piece  of legislation that brought about newfound protection to citizens from bombs which previously “killed and maimed indiscriminately.” 

Therefore, with all of the aforementioned facts in mind, donating to Human Rights Watch would be a sure way in bringing about change and ensuring that human rights violations get exposed, lessened, and stopped.

Amnesty International

logo of Amnesty International
(source: yahoo images)

Amnesty International is one of the most influential and famous nongovernmental organizations in the world. Amnesty International, simply put, could be defined by its mission statement: “[we are] a global movement of more than 10 million people who take injustice personally. We are campaigning for a world where human rights are enjoyed by all.” Amnesty International, like Human Rights Watch, is primarily funded by its supporters – not governments or political institutions.

Moreover, Amnesty International is both unbiased and bipartisan – they simply just seek to ensure all people enjoy human rights. Amnesty International functions by lobbying governments to ensure they keep their promises and passions for human rights; investigate and expose all violations that occur in the world, despite of where or what might have happened; and seek to educate and mobilize all people who wish to learn more about human rights.

Amnesty International was founded more than 50 years ago when the owner, Peter Benenson, saw two Portuguese students jailed for raising a toast to freedom in 1961. Since then, Amnesty International has been one of the most prominent and respected NGOs on the scene, and they have accomplished a lot. 

In just 2022 alone, Amnesty International has helped free individuals who were imprisoned unjustly and ensured that human rights abusers got locked up. Moreover, Amnesty International was a driving force behind the decriminalization of Abortion in Colombia. Needless to say, Amnesty International’s impact, passion, and dedication to human rights is incredibly influential, and donating to their cause would definitely help bring about good changes. 

Human Rights First

Egypt's desert mountains
(source: yahoo images)

Human Rights First (HRF) was established in 1978, with the mission of “[ensuring] that the United States is a global leader on human rights.” Human Rights First is centered in the United States, but it conducts a multitude of work abroad to ensure that “human wrongs are righted.” 

Human Rights First has been involved in a lot of international political affairs which sought to eradicate injustice and, as they put it, human wrongs. For instance, in 1988, Human Rights First initiated its Lawyer-to-Lawyer network, which was an initiative that helped ensure all lawyers that have been imprisoned unjustly internationally are released. As of now, the program has worked with over 8000 lawyers in over 130 countries. 

In addition to helping create the International Criminal Court, Human Rights First also helped establish the Fair Labor Association in 1999. This Association brought together over 60 major companies, such as Nike and Adidas, to help set workplace standards for industries throughout the world. In doing so, Human Rights First helped ensure that those who work for major international companies are not going to face hardships or disparity in their workplace environment. 

Human Rights First, in addition to all that has been mentioned, has been a major actor in the anti-torture movement. In 2009, Human Rights First stood beside President Obama when he signed the executive order banning all torture in the United States. Then, in 2015, Human Rights First sought to make Obama’s order even more powerful and impactful. After the release of the Torture Report, Human Rights First was able to gain public support and then work with Senators McCain and Feinstein to craft what they consider to be the “strongest anti-torture law in U.S. history.”

Needless to say, Human Rights First is an incredibly dedicated, driven, and successful organization, which has had years of successful changes in the world of human rights. You definitely would not go wrong by donating or supporting them. 

Summary

Beautiful nature scenery
(source: yahoo images)

In summary, human rights is a very complicated topic that is often convoluted and hard to understand through the media. Due to this, many do not always know what is the best way to donate and help out, despite wanting to. In this blog, I have listed multiple different organizations that have a proven history of success and change, and I thus hope to have made the process of getting involved in human rights easier. 

If more people are involved in human rights, more change will happen, and more people internationally will have access to these same rights. It is my hope that, one day, human rights will be as accessible to everyone on this planet as oxygen is. This will only happen with support, and that is exactly what I hope to have urged you to do in this blog — support the NGOs which fight for human rights. 

A Brief Judicial History of Religious Freedom

US Supreme court building
(source: yahoo images)

The first line of the first amendment in the Constitution of the United States, also known as the Establishment clause, asserts that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” This clause, although seemingly simple in nature, has been the root of many judicial battles throughout the United States’ history. Religion, as a human right, has always been a topic of political debate.  

One might inquire as to why this is the case: what makes the freedom of religion such a sensitive topic? In this blog, I seek to answer this question by outlining fundamental cases which have shaped how our legislators interpret our right to religion. Moreover, this blog shall conclude with how our fundamental right to religion is being interpreted today, as well as what is potentially in store for religious interpretation in the future. 

Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) | Introduction of the Lemon Test

US constitution
(source: yahoo images)

Our journey begins in 1971, with the landmark Supreme Court Case of Lemon v. Kurtzman which involved the states of Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. The issue materialized when both of the aforementioned states decided to introduce legislation that would use taxpayer money to fund church-affiliated schools. In doing so, the government funds would pay for teacher salaries, textbook costs, and many other educational materials. Funding church-affiliated schools could be construed as a violation of  the Establishment Clause. The Supreme Court followed this logic, and with an 8-1 ruling, they decided to strike down the legislation passed by Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, no longer allowing state funds to go to church-affiliated schools.

What is particularly remarkable about this case is that it formally introduced the so-called Lemon Test, a judicial test constructed to see if legislation defies the Establishment Clause. The Lemon Test has three ways to test and see if a piece of legislation defies the clause:

  • The piece of legislation must have a secular purpose;
  • The piece of legislation must not advance or prohibit the practice of religion;
  • The piece of legislation must not force the government into “excessive entanglement” with religious affairs.

If a piece of legislation passes the Lemon Test, then it does not defy the Establishment Clause and can proceed to further scrutiny. That is, the legislation will be evaluated to see if aligns with the other amendments. With these three prongs noted, one can see how easily Lemon v. Kurtzman would have failed the Lemon Test. 

Wallace v. Jaffree (1985) | Application of the Lemon Test

Wallace v. Jaffree, a case that took place in the state of Alabama, is another landmark Supreme Court case involving a dispute in legislation around religion. In 1981, Alabama decided to introduce legislation that mandated a 1-minute moment of silence at the start of class in all public schools. Although, ostensibly, the legislators claimed that this moment of silence could be used either for reflection or prayers, the legislation’s intent was to create an opportunity for students to pray before school started.  

This decision naturally upset many non-religious parents, and multiple lawsuits soon followed, climbing their way up all the way to the Supreme Court. Throughout this process, the Alabama legislators argued that this bill does not defy the Establishment Clause, as the moment of silence can be used in any way that pleases the student— not necessarily just for prayer. However, the fault in this is that the introduction of the bill was done to allow students to pray, not to give them a moment of silence; thus, this bill failed the Lemon Test’s first prong as it did not have a secular purpose. In a vote of 6-3, the Supreme Court held that the bill defies the Establishment Clause. 

Oregon v. Smith (1990) | Introduction of RFRA

street signs saying church and state
(source: yahoo images)

This case, unlike the aforementioned ones, has a bit more nuance to it and led to a wide range of implications. This case is the primary reason Congress enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993, which is one of the most bipartisan pieces of legislation, having passed the House unanimously and the Senate 97-3. 

In Oregon v. Smith, two people, who both worked at a drug rehabilitation center, were fired due to having consumed peyote, a hallucinogenic drug. The issue at hand, however, is that their consumption of peyote was done during a sacred religious practice. This case did not make it to the Supreme Court because the drug rehabilitation center fired them (as the center very much can fire whoever they please — they are a private entity); it made it to the Supreme Court because after they were fired, these two individuals sought unemployment benefits and were denied due to being fired for consuming drugs, which is considered “workplace misconduct.” 

However, unlike the previous cases, the Supreme Court did not rule in favor of the appellants. The Court, by a 6-3 vote, ruled that since the denial of unemployment benefits due to workplace misconduct is a rule of general application (meaning it does not specifically target any people or religious practice), it is constitutional. 

However, as one might conclude, many did not like this outcome. Therefore, as aforementioned, Congress enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to clarify some of the issues raised by Oregon v. Smith. The first clause of RFRA states its purpose, saying that it aims to prohibit “any agency, department, or official of the United States or any State (the government) from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.”

This first clause seeks to prohibit exactly what was the outcome in Oregon v. Smith, but it also comes with some limitations. That is, Congress is free to burden one’s exercise of religion if (1) doing so will further a compelling government interest; and, (2) doing so is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest. The introduction of this incredibly bipartisan bill, as we will shortly explore, has some interesting implications. 

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014) | Application of RFRA

In the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, we see the RFRA being put to use which leads to an interesting implication from the outcome of this case. Burwell v. Hobby Lobby sprouted from one of the requirements of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), namely, that all nonexempt employers are legally required to offer their employees health coverage and benefits, including contraceptives, some of which stop an egg from fertilizing. Before progressing with the case, we ought to make note that some employers, primarily religious institutions such as churches, are exempt from the ACA.

Hobby Lobby, a crafts company, is a tightly-owned company, meaning that there are only a few number of people who own the company. All of these owners, moreover, do not want to comply with the ACA since they believe life begins at conception and to thereby provide their employees with free contraceptives would go against their religious beliefs. However, if a company does not comply with the ACA, it would have to pay a fee per employee. For Hobby Lobby, the total cost would amount to about $475 million per year. 

Hobby Lobby was conflicted about whether they should go against their religious beliefs and supply their employees with contraceptives or instead pay $475 million a year and adhere to their religious stance. Due to this ethical dilemma, Hobby Lobby decided to sue the Department of Human Health Services (those who implemented the ADA), and the case made its way up to the Supreme Court. Hobby Lobby cited RFRA, stating that the ACA mandate does not comply with RFRA’s second clause. They argued that forcing Hobby Lobby to offer its employees contraceptives is not the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government decision. Rather, Hobby Lobby stated that they, like religious institutions, should be exempt from the ACA, as that is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest (health care for employees). The employees of companies who are exempt from the ACA have their health care paid for by taxes. 

The Supreme Court agreed with Hobby Lobby. By a vote of 5-4, the Supreme Court ruled that Hobby Lobby is correct—the least restrictive means indeed is making Hobby Lobby an exempt company, thereby allowing governmental taxes to pay for the health care of their employees.

What is remarkable about this case is its implication that the Supreme Court stated that the best course of action to resolve a religious dispute over health care is to simply allow the government to fund health care. One might argue, then, that the Supreme Court is hinting toward universal health care, as they view that as the least restrictive means. 

Kennedy v. Bremerton School District (2022) | Abandonment of the Lemon Test

bill of rights
(source: yahoo images)

The last case we shall discuss is one that has been all over the media recently: Kennedy v. Bremerton School District. In this case, a high school football coach decided to kneel and pray before and after games. The school district feared that his actions would violate the Establishment Clause, so they asked him to stop. When he did not, they fired him.

Claiming his first amendment right to the freedom of religion was violated, he sued the school. The lawsuit eventually made its way up to the Supreme Court, and, by a 6-3 vote, the Court ruled in the coach’s favor, stating that he was not complicit in praying since he did it during post-game periods when people were free to do as they pleased.

However, something remarkable also happened in this case: the Supreme Court decided to stop using the Lemon Test, which has been in practice since 1971. Instead of the Lemon Test, the Court stated that they will decide disputes over the Establishment Clause by “accor[ding] with [what] histor[ically] and faithfully reflec[ts] the understanding of the Founding Fathers.”

What this means, we do not yet know, as this is yet another new change by the Supreme Court. Throughout history, the Lemon Test has proved itself to be a great way of settling legislative disputes, so one could only wonder why the Supreme Court decided against it.

Summary

US Capitol Building
(source: yahoo images)

As I showed with this blog post, cases revolving around religious freedom are by no means simple, but the courts, thankfully, have historically always ruled in favor of the Establishment Clause, never seeking to subdue religious freedom.

However, after the abandonment of the Lemon Test in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, it is clear that the Supreme Court is planning on interpreting the Establishment Clause differently than they have had since 1971. What this means for upcoming cases, we have yet to find out. However, what we do know is that religious freedom, despite how tricky it might be at times, should remain a human right. 

A Succinct Discussion on Global Poverty

 

small houses
(source: yahoo images)

Everyone has heard of global poverty and its horrendous consequences; however, for some people, that is where their knowledge ends. In this blog, I am going to undertake the task of succinctly compiling facts and statistics about this incredibly broad topic. My hope is that, after reading this blog, you are more inclined to speak out on global poverty and educate others on the topic. 

A Rudimentary Understanding

a desert overview
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Global poverty is an umbrella term for poverty that exists throughout the entire world. That was the easy part: defining global poverty. However, defining poverty is a tad bit more tricky. We can surely say that poverty is a status: the status given to those whose annual income falls under a bar; however, poverty is more than just low annual income. 

The United Nations, in particular, has defined poverty as, “a denial of choices and opportunities, a violation of human dignity. It means a lack of basic capacity to participate effectively in society. It means not having enough to feed and clothe a family, not having a school or clinic to go to, not having the land on which to grow one’s food or a job to earn one’s living, not having access to credit. It means insecurity, powerlessness, and exclusion of individuals, households, and communities. It means susceptibility to violence, and it often implies living in marginal or fragile environments, without access to clean water or sanitation.”

In addition, when discussing poverty, there is a distinction between relative deprivation and absolute deprivation. Relative deprivation is a function of inequality and can be defined as “the lack of resources (e.g. money, rights, social equality) necessary to maintain the quality of life considered typical within a given socioeconomic group.”

Absolute deprivation, on the other hand, is when one’s income falls below a level where they are unable to maintain food and shelter. Studies have shown that relative deprivation, or the inability to live up to the basic standards of living set forth within a particular community of reference, can be just as harmful to health outcomes as absolute deprivation. For example, research suggests that diabetes – a disease associated with modernization – is not a function of poverty, as the poorest countries show the lowest incidence among the global population. It is in nations that exhibit increasing political-economic and social inequality, including the United States, that diabetes has emerged as a leading cause of death and a serious public health threat.

Therefore, it should go without saying that our goal should be to diminish all forms of deprivation globally.

Statistics and Facts

a desert view of a tree
(source: yahoo images)

Personally, what I find most disturbing about global poverty is its breadth. Grounding this point is the fact that, according to the World Bank and WorldVision, “About 9.2% of the world, or 689 million people, live in extreme poverty on less than $1.90 a day.”

Practically one in ten people within the world are living in poverty.

To better understand the magnitude of this issue, imagine the following scenario: you live in this fantasy world where, in an effort to promote international toleration and cooperation, 30 children from all around the world get arbitrarily placed together into a classroom. Out of those 30 children, three of them would be living on less than $2 a day. If you are reading this blog, then you naturally have access to some sort of electric device. Those three children, in a year, will not have accumulated enough money to purchase your device. 

A logical question that might follow from the preceding scenario is that it is wrong of me to solely include children in made-up scenarios because adults, after all, also live in poverty.  While that is undeniably true, they by no means make up the majority. Over two-thirds of those living in poverty are children. Of those children, women represent the majority. 

Let us quickly look at local poverty—specifically, poverty within the United States. In the United States, as of 2019, around 10.5% of people live in poverty. The poverty line in the United States is around $13,000, and thus, each person living in poverty makes around $35 a day. Let us make note that these statistics are from 2019, meaning they are pre-pandemic. In 2020, the percentage of people living in poverty went up by one point to 11.4%. Ostensibly, that raise seems miniscule; however, it accounts for 3 million new  Americans who entered poverty, also now making less than $35 a day. 

All poverty is bad: that is undisputed. However, one who lives in America might confuse American poverty with global poverty as it might be what they encounter daily.  This presents a problem because this cannot be done as they are by no means the same. Those in poverty in America statistically make ten times more a day than those living in poverty abroad. That is a big difference; we can not equate the two.

Education

a view of UNESCO
(source: yahoo images)

Education is a human right; that is undeniable. Every human who walks this Earth has the right to get an education and develop individually. However, living in poverty makes education incredibly difficult. 

One study has found that, of those who live in poverty and are over the age of 15, 70% have only a basic education with no formal schooling. That means that if you are born into poverty and have no way of elevating out of this status, then, statistically, you are unlikely to get an education. This is an immense issue due to the fact that, according to UNESCO, education is the key to climbing out of poverty. In fact, UNESCO stated that, “if all students in low-income countries had just basic reading skills (nothing else), an estimated 171 million people could escape extreme poverty. If all adults completed secondary education, we could cut the global poverty rate by more than half.”

The dilemma is that the path out of poverty is through education; however, living in poverty makes education harder to achieve. 

However, in the past years, steps have been made in the correct direction, and education rates have indeed increased. A rise in education is beneficial to not just those living in poverty, but the nations they live in as well. In fact, a study published by Stanford University and Munich’s Ludwig Maximilian University shows that, between 1975 and 2000, 75% of the increase in a nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) can be attributed to the increase of math and science skills amongst the population. 

Therefore, education not only improves the lives of those in poverty, but also the well-being and economy of the nation and its people. It is for those reasons, amongst many more, that education is, and should forever remain, a human right.

Impacts

a picture of trees
(source: yahoo images)

In addition to the lack of education, those living in poverty face a multitude of other negatives. For one, a study found that adults living in poverty are at a “higher risk of adverse health effects from obesity, smoking, substance use, and chronic stress. [IN ADDITION], older adults with lower incomes experience higher rates of disability and mortality.”

In addition, this same study found that those living in the top 1% generally have a life expectancy 10 years greater than those living in poverty. Moreover, one study found that, for children and adolescents, poverty can also cause differences in structural and functional brain development, which impacts “cognitive processes that are critical for learning, communication, and academic achievement, including social emotional processing, memory, language, and executive functioning.”

Therefore, with the aforementioned facts in mind, it is easily concluded that poverty is an immense issue, and political leaders should be doing more to help relieve the issue. 

So, naturally, one might ask: why is nothing being done? One response to this question comes from the World Systems Theory. This theory is complex, so I will try my best to briefly discuss it. The theory states that all nations are divided into three systems: the core, the periphery, and the semi-periphery. Essentially, the theory states that the core nations, which are the most politically and economically powerful, use the periphery and semi-periphery nations, which are filled with developing nations, for cheap labor and resources. The core rewards the periphery for their resources and labor, but not enough that the nations develop at such a pace that they become equal to the core nations. This in turn causes a dilemma in which the periphery depend more on the core than vice versa. Some might argue that this in turn perpetuates global poverty as the core nations are doing the least to help developing nations. In other words, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, thus exacerbating both absolute and relative forms of deprivation and sustaining the cycle of poverty.

Moving Forward

a view of the road
(source: yahoo images)

As mentioned previously, global poverty has indeed been decreasing. According to WorldVision, “Since 1990, more than 1.2 billion people have risen out of extreme poverty. Now, 9.2% of the world survives on less than $1.90 a day, compared to nearly 36% in 1990.” 

We are still heading down this path of poverty reduction, and it is vital that we continue to do so. Perhaps, one day, we will live in a world free of poverty—a world in which every single person is educated, well-nourished, and does not have to fear starvation. It is my hope that after you finish reading this blog, you will share any knowledge and statistics you may have learned with others. The first step in resolving  an issue–and continuing to resolve it—is acknowledgement. If more people are aware of how detrimental poverty is, more people will in turn be inclined to help fix it. We need more support and commitment to a world in which poverty is mere history. 

United States: The Case for Transitional Justice

“Statue of Lady Justice” Source: Jernej Furman via Flickr

Note from the Author: This blog was written to accompany the Social Justice Café Transitional Justice: Here & Now hosted by the Institute for Human Rights at UAB on Wednesday, November 30th at 4:00pm CST. At this event we will discuss a brief history of Transitional Justice in the United States and hold an open discussion about what it could look like in the home city of the Institute, Birmingham Alabama. You can find out more information and join the virtual event here. In this post, we will explore transitional justice in the United States. We will have another post on the international context of transitional justice. 

Transitional justice is a field of international justice that “aims to provide recognition to victims, enhance the trust of individuals in State institutions, reinforce respect for human rights and promote the rule of law, as a step towards reconciliation and the prevention of new violations” (OHCHR). Often referred to as TJ, transitional justice is a system of multiple mechanisms and processes that attempt to create stability and ensure justice and remedies for victims of oppression and human rights transgressions. Some of the most commonly used mechanisms of TJ are truth commissions (TCs), reparations, and trials of perpetrators.

In practice, transitional justice has often been restricted to nations following active conflict or repressive authoritarian regimes, otherwise known as transitional time periods. This traditional understanding of transitional justice is beginning to evolve as stable, established democracies like Canada and South Korea implement TJ mechanisms such as truth commissions and reparations to address and amend state-sponsored abuses of certain groups. As it evolves the international gaze has once again turned to the United States and the uncomfortable discussion about the historical and ongoing oppressions. This article intends to establish the historical basis of transitional justice in the United States and recent developments to encourage a conversation about acknowledgement, fact-finding, reparations, and justice in the land of the free.

Section 1: Historical Examples of Transitional Justice in the United States

With an international spotlight on the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States in 2020 came an increase in conversations about reparations to African Americans for the abuses of slavery, segregation, police brutality, prison labor, exclusion from housing and education and other forms of state-sponsored oppression that have proliferated for centuries. The discussion about the harms the American government has caused to Indigenous tribes, Alaskan Natives and people of Hawai’i, and other marginalized groups has been a matter of public discourse for decades. While the word reparations saturated international media, little attention was given to what reparations would truly look like, could look like, and examples of when the United States have provided reparations before. 

While the spotlight of this discussion about reparations is often on monetary forms, such as property, cash or pensions, transitional justice recognizes that reparations can and should come in many different guises in order to provide a more holistic and healing process for victims. Reparations are deeply context-specific, and should be tailored to the needs of the victim, nation, and individual circumstance. However, examples of other forms of reparations and TJ include official acknowledgements and apologies, funding of research to uncover facts and educate the public on the truth, providing education and/or healthcare to victims and their families, and preserving historical sights and monuments. Ultimately, they should be determined by and catered to the people involved. 

I have included both a brief infographic timeline and a more detailed look at a few examples of government-led transitional justice mechanisms in the United States below. It is important to note that, as many of these instances occurred prior to our modern definitions of transitional justice and reparations, this timeline encompasses cases of compensation which, under similar circumstances today, would likely be considered reparations, but were not explicitly intended as such at the time. The same goes for fact finding commissions that are analogous modern Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, though they lack that title. I have excluded instances of payments or acknowledgements being issued following a lawsuit through our judicial system, as well as instances of TJ being led by non-governmental entities like community organizations, charities or other non-governmental institutions.

Infographic by Maya Crocker for the Institute of Human Rights. Source: https://guides.library.umass.edu/reparations
  • President Lyndon B. Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, otherwise known as the Kerner Commission, in 1967. It was established to serve the purpose of a fact-finding mechanism akin to a Truth Commission today. The goal of the commission was to identify the causes of the violent race riots of 1967. While widely ignored, the Kerner Commission found that the root of the unrest were unequal economic opportunities, racism, and police brutality against minority racial groups in America. 
  • Following concentrated efforts from interest groups and international attention, the United States federal government committed to two massive examples of explicit transitional justice mechanisms in the 1980s for Japanese Americans that were interned by Executive Order 9066 during World War II. In 1980 President Jimmy Carter signed the  Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) into law, establishing a clear transitional justice mechanism (truth commission) at the national level. The CWRIC published the full report of their findings in February of 1983, and momentum from the commission persisted with the recommendations which were published in June 1983. The recommendations included an official apology, pardons for those convicted of violations of the executive order or during detainment, and the establishment of a federally funded foundation for research and education on the incident. 
  • Shortly after the results of the CWRIC circulated across the nation, the United States Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which provided all eligible interned individuals with a one time payment of $20,000 in reparations as well as official acknowledgement and apology from the United States. In addition, all individuals who were convicted of disobeying the executive order or violating rules while interned were officially pardoned.
  • In response to the massive Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, many subnational level truth commissions and reparations programs were initiated, including those in the State of California, Evanston, Illinois, and Asheville, North Carolina. As the national conversation continues, we may see an increase of examples of transitional justice at work in United States communities.
“Freedom?” Source: Nicu Buculei via Flickr

Section 2: You, us, and the future of transitional justice in the United States

Whether in Europe, Africa, the Asia-Pacific, the Middle East, or the Americas, civil society plays a key role in the transitional justice sphere. Civil society actors are civilian organizations which can be activist groups, media, charities, non-profit organizations, educational groups and schools, or just citizens interacting with policy. Most recent transitional justice measures that have been implemented in the past few years in the United States have been on the subnational level. They are occurring as a result of citizens’ calls for action, constant attention on the need for transitional justice, and the everyday acts of discussing transitional justice. 

Birmingham, Alabama is a historic city for human rights, civil rights and civic action. Civil society here, in this city, has influenced national change through the Civil Rights Movement as well as citywide changes like the removal of confederate statues in public parks and the preservation of historic sites from the Civil Rights Movement like the Greyhound Bus Station and 16th Street Baptist Church. 

The Institute of Human Rights at UAB fosters an educational environment where you can see civil society at work, and hosts Social Justice Cafes on the second Wednesday of every month during the school year at 4:00pm CST. We will be hosting our last Social Justice Café of the semester, Transitional Justice: Here & Now on Wednesday, November 30th to discuss what transitional justice should look like in American cities like Birmingham. You can find out how to join these open discussions, and become a civil society actor yourself, and attend more free educational events from the Institute of Human Rights here

A Firsthand Perspective of the Humanitarian Needs of IDPs in Cameroon

Cameroon, once a bastion of peace and tranquility, is now a nation beset with a series of violent and armed conflicts. Since late 2016, an armed conflict between the state defense forces of Cameroon and the non-state armed groups (NSAGs) of Southern Cameroons’ has ravaged the country. In the last six years, there have been more than 6,000 deaths, 765,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), and 70,000 registered refugees in neighboring Nigeria, with approximately 2.2 million people in need of humanitarian aid. The Norwegian Refugee Council has referred to the conflict as one of the most neglected in the world. The long-term human capital consequences of this conflict are enormous. 

A more comprehensive background of the armed conflict and humanitarian crisis in Southern Cameroons can be found in a previous IHR blog post, “Cameroon, a Nation Divided”. 

Map of Cameroon.
Source: via Yahoo Images

It is against this backdrop that the Cameroon Humanitarian Relief Initiative (CHRI) in partnership with the Institute of Human Rights (IHR) co-hosted an international webinar, “Updates on the Humanitarian Crisis from the Ongoing Armed Conflict in the Southern Cameroons” on the 18th of October, 2022. The aim of this event was to discuss the current humanitarian crisis from a multi-perspective panel. The speaker biographies can be found at the bottom of this blog post. 

Excerpts from this webinar were edited and woven together for this blog post. The full recording of the webinar is available on request by contacting ihr@uab.edu. 

Image of Cameroonian IDPs.
Source: via Yahoo Images

Overview                                                                                                                     

What are the current humanitarian needs for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Southern Cameroons? 

Atim Evenye: The current context and the magnitude of the ongoing crisis in the Northwest and Southwest regions remain tense. There is continuous violence in targeted areas. We have the destruction of properties. We have abductions and kidnappings of both community people and administrators. We have killings and local arrests. We have continuous attacks on schools and students. Humanitarians face threats and direct [armed] attacks.  [These are carried out] by both parties, the non-state actors and the state defense forces.

The population [has] really [been] under duress and stress for over six years.

Food Security:                                                                                                                      Atim Evenye: When it comes to the current needs for IDPs, at the moment, I would say food security remains one of those outstanding needs. Especially in the rural areas, because these IDPs have fled their place of abort. They don’t have access to their farms. [As such,] they don’t have the economic capital [for even] daily subsistence. So, there is a lot of dependencies now on family members, [or] world food programs, and other humanitarian organizations bringing food assistance in the area. 

Education Accessibility:                                                                                                        Atim Evenye: There is a strict restriction around education. In [the rural areas] of the Northwest and Southwest regions, we have children who have not been able to go to school until date. In urban areas, there is a possibility of schools for those who can afford it. Currently, in our zone in the Northwest and Southwest regions, we have lost one month [of school this term], because we are only starting now. So, it becomes challenging on how to catch up. There’s a need for accelerated learning. [Additionally,] teachers have been abducted [and] schools have been burned. [To add to that,] there is a lot of psychological trauma, [as] many children have witnessed or experienced violence firsthand. Both the state and non-state actors [are] not conscious of the impact their actions are having on children. The government doesn’t want to hear about community schools as prescribed by the separatist. So, it’s really very challenging to access education. 

Dr. Emmanuel Nfor: Education is one of the issues at the origin and at the core of the crisis, and formal education has been used by NSAGs, [the non-state armed groups], as a political instrument. NSAGs have advocated and enforced a “no school policy”, leading to public school closures for the past four years in many areas. More than fifty percent of threats against buildings in communities have been directed against schools, and many school buildings have been taken over by organized armed groups. Accessing education in emergency services, or going to school in such a volatile environment, is proven to be risky for children, as well as for teachers. Pupils who were in school in most rural areas have dropped out, some joining armed groups, others displaced, and some have outgrown their ages for the classes in which they were and cannot continue. Many parents have lost their means of livelihood and are unable to sponsor their children in school. Despite repeated calls from humanitarian and human rights organizations for education to be depoliticized, schools have been burnt, teachers and students intimidated, kidnapped, and even killed, and some have seen their hands chopped off by members of armed groups. 

Gender-based violence (trigger warning):                                                                          Atim Evenye: We see [a great deal] of gender-based violence. In certain assessments we have conducted, for example, [many of these] young girls in rural areas are not able to go to school. What are they left to do? There is a lot of harassment, rape, and [sexual assaults]. They’re looking for five hundred francs CFA, that’s like one dollar, to [be able to just buy] food to eat. So then, they depend on young men to give them that money. And at the end of the day, they [get pregnant and become] teenage mothers. The whole cycle is really detrimental, it’s a really difficult one. 

Dr. Emmanuel Nfor: Sexual violence is rampant, as a direct consequence of the crisis but also due to decreasing livelihoods, negative coping mechanisms, and lack of protection structures. The boy child is an endangered species, at risk of accusation and arbitrary killing from GFs [state defense forces], and forced recruitment by the NSAGs. There are no specific programs by both UN agencies and Internal bodies that address the needs of the boys. 

Housing:                                                                                                                                      Dr. Emmanuel Nfor: If we look at where the IDPs in particular are, we have IDPs that are living in the rural areas, in the bushes. We have those living within host communities. We have some that have been able to rent. [But if] they are able to pay for accommodation, [there are] a lot of difficulties because they want them to pay upfront, and they cannot do it. In all three groups, they lack basic WaSH and health services, NFIs [non-food items], and protection from natural hazards. Those who fled to other regions face stigma and severe protection risks related to exploitation, and socio-economic vulnerabilities including extortion, sexual exploitation, and child labor. 

Healthcare:                                                                                                                            Atim Evenye: The next principal need I would say is around healthcare. In recent times we have [had] heath centers burned, and the staff attacked. So, it’s really challenging. Statement needs to be completed, even before the crisis, access to health care has been a serious challenge, especially in rural areas. And then, currently, with the crisis, it’s even more exacerbated. It becomes difficult now [for] humanitarians on the ground who are trying to meet the needs of these people. Take, for example, Doctors Without Borders. They have [had] to put their activities on the hold because they had issues around access [and safety] of their staff.

Dr. Emmanuel Nfor: [There is a lot of] healthcare [needs] for the vulnerable. [Safe practices in regard to] water, sanitation, and hygiene are not being followed. People who live in rural areas don’t have a good source of water. But they could be educated on the fact that even though your source of water is doubtful, you could take it, you boil it, you purify it, or you do something to make it [potable]. That education, they don’t have, or the chemicals for water treatment. Additionally, there is a lack of emergency medical and psychological units, to provide emergency care to the wounded and psychosocial support to those traumatized by the violence. We can educate people on how to prevent simple infections. How can you prevent diarrhea infection? How can you prevent malaria? If this education is done, it could be [one] way to [improve basic healthcare].

Healthcare, which is supposed to be a protected area, unfortunately, has not been the case in this conflict.  We have had health centers closed; more than fifty percent of the health centers in rural communities have been closed. Not only the health centers, [but] the health workers do not feel comfortable staying there. So, a lot of them have abandoned [the centers]. The [people] left in these communities cannot access healthcare. Women cannot access antenatal clinics. Vaccinations [are] not being done, and thousands of children are at risk of contracting common vaccine-preventable infections. 

The population has been abandoned to themselves.

Health centers that are open in semi-urban and urban areas are overwhelmed by people who have [been forced by the conflict to flee]. And what’s worse is that most of those who have [fled] do not have the means to pay for the treatment. We have some health centers that have accumulated huge unpaid bills because those who access healthcare cannot afford to pay those bills. For the facilities that are open, IDPs cannot afford to pay for the treatment that is given to them. 

We have [also] had cases of drugs and other medical equipment [being] seized along the way by organized armed groups. So, it’s difficult to render care because the drugs and medical supplies do not reach the vulnerable in the hard-to-reach areas. Free supply of drugs and medical equipment is disturbed by locked downs, roadblocks, and/ or are seized at gunpoint. 

Then the last very worrying thing is that healthcare workers are being attacked or kidnapped for ransom. A lot of them have been attacked both by the non-state actors and by the state forces; [health workers are] kidnapped by the non-state actors and/or arrested by the [state forces]. So, it is not safe [from] either side. They see you as collaborating with the other, and [so the question is] whether you should treat wounded combatants or not. According to the healthcare regulation, we take any wounded persons as patients. But unfortunately, when these [combatants are] treated, we [the healthcare workers] are blamed. The non-state actors blame you for treating the state forces. The state forces blame you for treating the non-state actors. It’s really a dilemma in which we are in. 

Future Directions:                                                                                                     

Looking towards the future, are there any resolutions to the humanitarian crisis in Southern Cameroons that you can think of that can be implemented at this point?

Dr. Emmanuel Nfor: I think the first thing we need to consider for the humanitarian crisis is that we need to speak the truth.

We need to make a truthful appraisal of what is happening on the field. Address the needs. For example, we are told that the crisis in Cameroon is one of the least funded in the world. Why? Because the data and the reposting are for some reason concealed. 

So, if we must be able to go forward with the humanitarian situation, we need to know how many people are living in the bushes, how many are living in host communities, in what conditions are they living, and be able to address it. [These] figures are often contested, they say the number is lower, or they want to sway the number for their gain. So, we must start with you right data. If we have the right data on needs, it will be possible to see where the solutions should come from. 

Possible resolution options, specifically for the humanitarian crisis, could consider the following:

-A community-based approach to raise awareness of protection risks in the community and identify and support community-based solutions. 

-Advocate for access to civil documentation, especially birth certificates, to avoid a stateless generation and mitigate protection risks associated with a lack of civil documentation. 

-Support community mediation of localized conflicts to reinforce the dialogue between host communities and IDPs and avoid tensions within the communities. 

-Advocate with parties to the conflict to respect the protection rights of communities, and respect International Humanitarian Laws. 

-Finding durable solutions for IDPs intending to stay in their host communities, like those who have established businesses in the new areas.

-Shelter support in rural areas as a high percentage of households live in tents or informal collective shelters 

Atim Evenye: When it comes to setting strategies that we can use to resolve this conflict, I would say it’s imperative, for the powers that be to consider the roles of different parties in the conflict. There is a need for parties in this conflict to come to the table and talk. There is a need for dialogue. There is a need for unity. We need to have a unity of purpose, to push our agenda in one voice. 

True is the fact that they have been the major national dialogue, [there] have been consultation meetings and other forms of dialogue in smaller circles. But the question is, during this dialogue are the needs of the different parties considered?

For example, we have women who have suffered a lot as a result of this conflict. But at the same time, we have that arm of women who are also seeking solutions on how to resolve the conflict. Women are now spearheading and speaking for themselves. And I think, there is a need to give a listening ear to what the women are saying because I think time in memorial, women have always demonstrated that ability to resolve conflict. So, one way to consider the proposals that women are giving here in Cameroon.

Secondly, there is a need to give academia and research a place. There are a lot of people in the academic who are gathering data, but the fear around it is the dissemination of this information. The administrative system is such that once you do a publication that is not supportive of what is happening, you get targeted. And by both sides. Thus, we try to be balanced in all information dissemination. There is a need for that deliberation and freedom of speech, especially in the area of academia. People should not be afraid to publicize or to make public the research and the results of what they have found in the field. So that’s another way that can be an added value to the approaches to conflict resolution. 

Also, there is a need to consider the root causes. The conflict did not just start like that, it degenerated along the line. So, there is a need to go back to the drawing board and understand what pushed the Southern Cameroonians to arrive at this point. What are the different trends that have been changing through the crisis?

When it comes to how to resolve the humanitarian crisis, I think the humanitarian needs are more than what the humanitarian organizations can do, funding is very limited. It’s obvious that humanitarians cannot meet all the needs. So where should we turn to? We should turn to other actors who can bring assistance. We have development actors who can bring resilient, [long-term, skills-building] projects so that the communities will not be too dependent. The people of the Northwest and Southwest have never been those who are dependent on handouts. 

They are people who are hard-working. We hear the aches of people wanting to be self-sustaining. They want to just be, to go back and be what they had been doing [before the conflict]. 

Dr. Emmanuel Nfor: If we don’t put away falsehood, if we don’t speak the truth and have the right data and have the right information about what is going on, on the ground, we will continue for many more years doing much but with very little impact. 

The people of Northwest and Southwest can lead by themselves. These are hard-working people. They just need to be empowered, to go back to where they have lived before. There are many people who are longing to go back home, but the problem is that they go to homes that have been burnt. They go to farms that have been abandoned. They go to be reminded of the horror. So, we need psychological treatment and support. We need some form of equipping them to be able to cope with what they have lost. We should be able to end the hostilities and give people the opportunity to go back home.

So, we should rather empower them, than continue to give them aid. Let peace reign, [so that] we can empower them to reveal what they have lost and then see how they can bring up that life again. [Then] we can go forward. But hostilities should cease, and we should speak the truth; to face each other face-to-face and speak the truth. 

Speaker Biographies

Atim Evenye Niger-Thomas, received a Ph.D. in Student Conflict Management and Peacebuilding at the International University of Applied sciences for Development (IUASD) Sao Tome in partnership with IPD Yaoundé.  Since 2016, Atim Evenye has worked and grown in different roles at the Authentique Memorial Empowerment Foundation (AMEF). Currently, she holds the position of Assistant Director and trainer for Humanitarian Negotiation. Under this supervision, AMEF has grown to be one of the leading humanitarian organizations in the Southwest Region. AMEF runs four core programs namely, Education and Child Protection (ECP), Economic Development and Livelihood (EDL), Gender, Protection and Peace (GPP), Health/Nutrition/ WASH (HNW).

Dr. Nfor Emmanuel Nfor, holds a PhD in Medical Parasitology from the University of Yaounde I, Cameroon. In February 2017, he joined the Cameroon Baptist Convention Health Services (CBCHS), as the Malaria Focal Point. While working with the CBCHS, he attended a Peer Review Workshop on Humanitarian Negotiation organized by the Centre for Competence in Humanitarian Negotiation (CCHN) Geneva. After many other online courses, and several National and International Conferences, he was appointed Trainer and Advisor of Humanitarian Projects within the CBCHS. In this capacity, he coordinated projects executed by the CBCHS with funding from WHO, UNICEF, and UNFPA. He has been at the forefront of Humanitarian activities within the CBCHS during the ongoing sociopolitical crises in the North West and South West Regions of Cameroon, working closely with the Cameroon Humanitarian Response Plan. 

 

This is the second in a series of blog posts that will look further into the conflict in Cameroon. Each month a humanitarian need and/or organization working in response to the humanitarian crisis will be featured on the UAB Institute for Human Rights’ blog. 

International Day for The Eradication of Poverty

Source: BetterAid via Google Images

Monday, October 17th is the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty; in 2022 we have a lot to acknowledge and a lot of work to be done. The theme for this day of commemoration is dignity, focused on how every human has the right to live with pride for themselves and respect from others. The first line of the Preamble for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) emphasizes the importance of how the “…recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,” and that is precisely the ideology behind the founding of this human rights holiday. But why, exactly, is poverty an international human rights issue?

History

Global poverty is defined as “lacking enough resources to provide the necessities of life—food, clean water, shelter and clothing. But in today’s world, that can be extended to include access to health care, education and even transportation.” 

This international day of recognition was adopted by the United Nations in December of 1992 to recognize the structures that cause poverty, to listen to and amplify the needs and desires of impoverished persons, and to place a specific focus on how the international community and global leaders can work to solve this persistent social problem. October 17th was chosen to observe this topic because on this day in 1987 a crowd of over a hundred thousand protesters gathered in the Trocadero Plaza of Paris, France to honor the victims of extreme hunger and poverty. In commemoration, a stone was placed in the Plaza, now renamed the Plaza for Human Rights and Liberties, engraved with the following message from Father Joseph Wresinski, “Wherever men and women are condemned to live in extreme poverty, human rights are violated. To come together to ensure that these rights be respected is our solemn duty”.

The right to live free of poverty is not listed in the UDHR, but our current understanding of poverty constituting a violation of human rights has been developing since before the UDHR was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. This is because living in extreme poverty is almost always accompanied with a loss of essential human rights that were explicitly enumerated in the UDHR, like the right to health, safe food and water and the right to adequate housing as illustrated in Articles 25 of the UDHR and the Human Right to Water and Sanitation. Even in developed and wealthy nations, citizens living in poverty experience obstacles in their ability to access the right to education, work, and political participation named in Articles 21, 23, and 16 of the UDHR. 

While persons living in poverty are often denied many, if not all of those fundamental human rights listed above, this holiday gets its theme from Article One of the UDHR, from which this holiday gets its theme: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Those in poverty often lose this right as limited access to the essential requirements of a quality life places them in a position where they rely on the aid of others, who often treat the impoverished as less than equals. They are patronized and degraded in their daily lives, and the social response to an impoverished person exercising their agency to decline charity is typically one of rebuke.

Source: Sparkasse Köln Bonn via Flickr

The Current State of Poverty

Global poverty rates have increased since the beginning of the Pandemic in 2020, and World Bank estimates that we have been set back 3-4 years on our path to ending extreme poverty as of October 2021. In addition to climbing unemployment and poverty rates is the leap in inflation, which has climbed globally as supply chains stretch thin. The Pew Research Center has found that the global middle class shrank while the global poor increased as the pandemic progressed, disrupting the progress of developed nations around the world, particularly in Asia and the Middle East.

These economic impacts affect more than immediate financial conditions of those involved. One side-effect has been a loss in education; as the United States and other wealthy countries moved online in response to the pandemic, other nations (particularly in the Global South) had to close schools entirely. Human Rights Watch has noted that, for millions of school-aged children, the pandemic effectively ended their formal education as alternative school options were few and the need for work and additional income rose. The International economic recovery will be challenging, and may take years to accomplish, but it is paramount that we keep the most vulnerable, both their dignity and agency, in mind as we navigate our collective path forward.

International Human Rights holidays are often overlooked due to their focus on what are often perceived to be niche categories outside of major religious or cultural practices. However, observing human rights holidays is a practice that allows for shared positivity and encouragement as we mark progress and victories in the field. They also provide days of unity to focus on pervasive issues that still need attention and work. On this holiday, join me in taking the time to think about how poverty affects your community, how your community has responded, and how it can alter that response to alter the quality of life for its impoverished population.

 

 

International Day of Innocent Children Victims of Aggression

Young girl covering her eyes
Source: Yahoo Images

While discussing various human rights violations and crises, it is important to also be mindful of the special groups such violations affect. On August 19th, 1982, the United Nations announced that June 4th of each year will be declared the International Day of Innocent Children Victims of Aggression. According to this article from OC Human Relations, the day’s purpose is to acknowledge the pain suffered specifically by children throughout the world who are the victims of physical, mental, and emotional abuse. The day also affirms the UN’s commitment to protect the rights of children. According to Children’s Advocacy Centers of Tennessee, nearly 700,000 children are abused annually in the US alone. In addition, rates of child abuse and neglect are five times higher for children in families with low socio-economic status compared to children in families with higher socio-economic status. A child’s right to be free from aggression and abuse is violated globally across many spectrums with crises such as domestic abuse and gun violence.

Child Domestic Abuse and Covid-19

Child crying on the ground
Source: Yahoo Images

Domestic abuse is an international issue that can affect people of every age, race, gender, and background. Also referred to as ‘domestic violence,’ domestic abuse can directly or indirectly affect children due to bullying, harassment, and endangerment from those who reside in their homes with them. Some signs of domestic abuse in a physically or emotionally abusive relationship include the following from The Children’s Society:

  • Kicking, punching, hitting
  • Threatening to kill someone or hurt them
  • Controlling behavior
  • Controlling someone’s finances by withholding money or stopping someone going to work
  • making someone feel guilty, criticizing them or making them feel small and stopping them from standing up for themselves

Unfortunately, the 2020 outbreak of the Covid-19 virus led to an increase in child victims of domestic abuse due to stay-at-home orders and lockdowns. These lockdowns decreased a child’s ability to find a safe place through school counselors or churches and seek guidance from trusted adults. Without being able to find an escape from unsafe home lives, many children suffered an increased risk of domestic violence. Although exact numbers cannot be known of how many additional cases were caused by the pandemic, one study analyzed data on more than 39,000 children treated at nine pediatric trauma centers. When researchers analyzed the group of children aged 5 and older, the number of child abuse victims tripled compared to a similar period before the pandemic. “The most common injury identified was head injury, followed by a mix of chest, abdomen, extremity and burn injuries,” said senior study author Dr. Katherine Flynn-O’Brien, associate trauma medical director at Children’s Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Dr. Andrea Asnes, a leader of the AAP Council on Child Abuse and Neglect and director of Yale Programs for Safety, Advocacy and Healing in New Haven, Connecticut, went on to explain that daycares for younger children were deemed essential and remained open, while school-aged children were stuck at home.

Child Victims of Gun Violence

Children march from a school shooting
Source: Yahoo Images

Another instance where minors experience acts of aggression and unsafety is through gun violence. Children can become victims of gun violence in or outside of the home, both in private and public places such as churches and schools. In the last decade, the number of children killed in armed conflicts is estimated at 1.5 million and another 4 million have been disabled, crippled, blinded or have suffered brain injuries. Only from year-to-date of 2022, there have been 27 school shootings in America alone, killing or injuring 83 people total. This number also includes last week’s shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. “When parents drop their kids off at school, they have every expectation to know that they’re going to be able to pick their child up when that school day ends. And there are families who are in mourning right now,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said at a news conference. “The state of Texas is in mourning with them for the reality that these parents are not going to be able to pick up their children.” The Robb Elementary shooting is the deadliest school shooting in ten years, when a gunman shot and killed 26 people as young as 6 years old at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

How to Help

Today, and every year on June 4th, it is important to remember this human rights holiday in honoring Innocent Children Victims of Aggression across the world. Progress can be made by further educating yourself on the many acts of aggression that violate a child’s human rights and by spreading the word to others. Click here to learn more: International Day of Innocent Children Victims of Aggression.