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#MeToo – Now What? From Outcry to Action

By Sharon Song, an MA student in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University

“I was an optimistic, driven, hardworking and ambitious young woman, determined to pursue a career in acting… I found myself relentlessly harassed… My life and career was in the hands of people intent on destruction, people who judged and vilified me in ways they never would have done if I was a man… I fought back, I got privacy laws changed.” – Sienna Miller, Actress & Activist

On the final day at the 62nd UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), the United Nations’ largest gathering on gender equality and women’s rights, the energy and anticipation was almost palpable. Journalists and activists convened at the UN headquarters to snatch a seat at a side-event discussing women in the media.

Since the tidal wave of #MeToo posts sprung up last fall in the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual perpetrations against dozens of women, activists across the nation and around the world have attempted to use the rapid momentum in the media to create lasting cultural change. The digital media has become a platform to speak out, retort, and start a dialogue to critically reflect on statements that were once considered harmless or largely ignored. More than 100 high-powered men across industries now stand accused of sexual harassment and misconduct. Many have fallen from grace, and others have been forced to resign. Perhaps for the first time in history, we’re seeing accountability played out in real time. There’s no denying that this moment is a transformative movement in social change. But we have now come to a vexing question: what now?

An event at the UN discussed how the media can be a powerful player in driving gender equality as part of the Sustainable Development Agenda. // UN Women

Addressing a largely female crowd, actress and activist Sienna Miller provided opening remarks at the event, which was organized by UN Women, The Guardian, and the Permanent Mission of Norway to the UN. Miller shared her own story of living her life in the spotlight, the paparazzi-frenzy that seems to be less forgiving towards women, and moments when she felt professionally undervalued and undermined because of her gender. The actress turned down a role in a Broadway production after learning that she was offered less than half of what her male co-star was being paid. She said, “It turned out to be a pivotal moment in my life. Not because I did it. But because I didn’t.”

Miller’s personal account of gender discrimination was a stark reminder of the glaring blind spot of the #MeToo movement and its lack of inclusivity. Because the reality is this: not all women have the luxury of saying no to a paycheck. Risking your livelihood as a member of the upper class in affluent Los Angeles is not the same as risking your livelihood working a blue-collar job in middle-town America.

At the same time, you cannot dismiss the pivotal role Hollywood power players have in the discourse of gender discrimination. After all, it is the famous faces behind the narratives that sparked the #MeToo conversation on the world stage in the first place. The panel discussion included Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of UN Women, who spoke on the solidarity that could be achieved between women in Hollywood and women in rural parts of the world. She emphasized that there is an opportunity for women in the public eye to “speak for other women who are outside and invisible.”

There is an initiative in Hollywood that is attempting to connect the voices between A-list movie stars and women working blue-collar jobs. The Time’s Up organization – spearheaded by actress Reese Witherspoon – is striving to stamp out patriarchy for all women, regardless of class. To date, the organization has raised more than $20 million dollars to provide legal defense funds for low-income women who have experienced sexual harassment and abuse. Perhaps we’ll soon see a Hollywood-stamped initiative that can cross borders to aid women in the Global South with little power and fewer resources. Mlambo-Ngcuka says seeing powerful men being held accountable on the public stage is not only sending a message to rural parts of the globe, but to younger generations: “Accountability says to young men that this is not normal, this is not right.”

It’s safe to say that the reckoning has begun. In December 2017, a group of House and Senate lawmakers introduced bipartisan legislation to respond to sexual harassment in Congress. The bill, named the Member and Employee Training and Oversight On (ME TOO) Congress Act, attempts to overhaul the system for filing and settling harassment claims made by congressional employees. The power of the #hashtag is bringing real political change to the U.S.

Pamella Sittoni, the managing editor of EastAfrican, speaks at the panel event, “Women in the Media: From Outcry to Action.” // UN Women

The speakers at the CSW panel discussion attempted to offer concrete solutions in the aftermath of #MeToo, in order to successfully initiate positive change and leave no individuals – regardless of race and class – behind. Pamella Sittoni, the managing editor of EastAfrican, a weekly newspaper published in Kenya, stressed the need for #MeToo to be seen as a genderless movement. She said #MeToo is not a women’s movement but a “humanity movement” about respecting dignity. She then emphasized the need for more men in leadership positions to be at the forefront in the discussions of gender equality: “Men shouldn’t feel that this is something targeting them. It’s a movement about a good world for all of us.”

In addition, the revelations learned through the watershed movement need to be spelled out on paper. Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of UN Women, argued that workplaces must review anti-harassment policies to ensure that gender-based discrimination is included. Changes must be made alongside the ongoing conversations facilitated by the #MeToo movement: “Sustain it, institutionalize it and make sure that it is reflected in the policies at the workplace.” She also called on journalists in the room to stay with the story of #MeToo and gender discrimination and not to stop writing until gender equality is reached.

While the panel discussion and the energy has progressed exponentially from just last year, I found the conversation to be overly polite and frustratingly surface-level. More than 8,000 people from 1,121 civil society organizations have registered for the CSW gathering this year – making it the largest number of attendees to date. Clearly, there is a widespread consciousness of feminist ideas in the public space across the globe. If we want structural change and solidarity to be achieved amongst feminists in all parts of the world, harder questions need to be addressed. What are the struggles of the women who are less visible and have less resources? How does their narrative connect to the women in Hollywood? How can the movement change to be more inviting towards men? What other angles can journalists take to effectively cover the #MeToo movement instead of simply being a “gotcha” game?

Perhaps it isn’t fair to expect a two-hour panel discussion to successfully tackle all the muddled areas that have emerged with the #MeToo movement. But it’s clear that a corner has been turned, and the closing remarks by Norway’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Ine Marie Eriksen Soreide couldn’t have been more fitting. “There is no going back after this,” she said.

Art/Law and Human Rights: Dialogues on Being Human

Dakota Porter is a MA student in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University

On April 9, Columbia Law School hosted visiting professor Amal Clooney in conversation with the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, for a discussion on the international legal projects of the United Nations. That same day, in a small space on the 24th floor of a Chinatown office building, artist and educator Pablo Helguera gave a talk with legal scholar and human rights activist Alicia Ely Yamin at Artsy, an organization at the intersection of art and technology.

The conversation between Clooney and the High Commissioner was both realistic (read: frank) and hopeful, but coverage is also due to a topic still fairly under-documented in the field: the relationship between arts, human rights and law.

During the discussion at Artsy, Helguera, a New York-based Mexican artist and museum educator at MoMA, introduced his work, followed by an interrogation of his subject matter and processes with Yamin, a professor at Georgetown University and a UN special advisor.

Artist Pablo Helguera gave a talk with legal scholar and human rights activist Alicia Ely Yamin at Artsy, an organization at the intersection of art and technology. // Dakota Porter

For readers unfamiliar with the concept of “socially engaged art,” it is a relatively new notion: it emphasizes collective participation in an art work and/or its creation, focusing on process instead of product, while at the same time seeking to address social and political issues.

Helguera’s art, for example, is heavily process-based. His 2003 project, The School of Panamerican Unrest,” was a public art piece composed mostly of a cross-continental odyssey by car from the north of Alaska to the furthest tip of Argentina (Tierra del Fuego), mobile school house in tow. Prompted by questions of national identity and migration law, the project incorporated activities within the mobile schoolhouse, which acted as a hub for performances and debates on “Panamerican” values of the XIXth century and related sociopolitical issues.

During the project, Helguera also conducted interviews with the last living speakers of indigenous languages from Alaska and Argentina to incorporate indigenous narratives and perspectives into his work. Through “The School of Panamerican Unrest,” Helguera sought to address the romanticism of travel, national origins and futures, indigenous rights, and immigrant rights, among other concepts.

Helguera’s other projects, such as “Librería Donceles” and “La Austral, S.A. de C.V.,” which opens April 11 at Museo De Los Sures in Brooklyn, are further examples of socially engaged art that aim to raise awareness of human rights issues and promote new visualizations of human rights futures.

In the dialogue that followed Helguera’s introduction, Yamin likened this relationship to the law: In legal discourses, she said, we are asking: “What is law? Is it litigation? Is it practice? Is it institutions?” These questions open up spaces for possible futures for the law, she added. The same is true for socially engaged art; it is creating a new space for the question, what is art? It does this by engaging formerly disenfranchised political actors and interlocutors. This theory of inclusive engagement supports the idea that we all have the potential to be creative subjects. We can all contribute to shaping of the law and our human rights.

Yamin, a human rights activist herself, noted the perilous consequences of our legal processes in our efforts for progress in human rights. On the subject of inclusivity and equality, concepts promoted by socially engaged art through its collective authorship and/or participation, she explained that many of these constructions of inequality are done through the law.

Panamerican Address at the opening of the exhibition Escultura Social at the MCA Chicago, June 2007. // Courtesy of Dakota Porter

In socially engaged art works— like Helguera’s “Librería Donceles,” which created a space for Spanish-language used books and donated profits from sales to NGOs for immigrant rights, or “La Austral, S.A. de C.V.,” where participants are invited to hear the narratives of DACA recipients in a Brooklyn museum— the potential for creative subjecthood is recognized, while the institutionalized inequalities that hinder human rights work are negated.

In closing the conversation, Yamin posited that one of the objectives of lawyers and litigation is to package narratives in order to achieve certain outcomes. Art, and socially engaged art in particular, recognizes the instrumentalization of these narratives and the subjectivity signified by this instrumentalization.

Helguera’s works and the projects of other socially engaged artists demonstrate the creative potential of our narratives in cultivating new futures, specifically more equal and dignified human rights futures.

Dakota Porter is a MA student in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. Her research focuses on the intersection of socially engaged art, law, and human rights. She has researched these issues in Kentucky, New York, Morocco and Guatemala. She currently works in Public Programs at PEN America, an organization at the intersection of literature and human rights.

Israel’s Two Minutes Hate: Netanyahu Reneges on Refugee Deal

by Ido Dembin, a blog writer for RightsViews and a M.A. student in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University

During the climax of 1984’s “Two Minutes Hate,” the image of the despised enemy of the state, the cowardly traitor (and probably the entirely made-up) Emmanuel Goldstein, is replaced with that of the supreme leader— the beloved, worshipped, unparalleled Big Brother.

This infamous scene from George Orwell’s dystopian society is grotesque, violent and extremely emotionally charged. Yet it is this same scene currently flashing across the Israeli social network in reality. The role of Goldstein is being played by an NGO called the “New Israel Fund” (NIF), and the part of Big Brother is, appropriately, occupied by another “BB”— Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister.

The book 1984 has experienced quite a rejuvenation of late. Perhaps it is in preparation for the 70th anniversary of its publication, or maybe it is the never-ending war, the terribly partisan political sphere or just a few certain “alternative facts”— but regardless, it is once again relevant for Israeli, as well as American, British and French, politics.

Last week, Israelis awoke to news of the country signing an agreement with the European Union that pertains to illegal immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. The main decisions reached included Israeli recognition of some 16,000 immigrants as either refugees or legal residents, the deportation of roughly the same amount to Western countries through the UNHCR, and new investments in infrastructure in south Tel Aviv, which has become home to some 35,000 immigrants since 2010.

A good overall agreement for all sides, the deal was perceived as a political victory for the Israeli left (which objects, mostly, to deportations of illegal immigrants, especially from Eritrea and South Sudan) and a loss to Netanyahu’s base– the right, which objects to accommodating any immigrants or refugees. Almost immediately, the left began celebrating the new agreement– and the right, which has stood by Netanyahu even when potential corruption charges surfaced against him, turned on him. He was bashed by pundits, politicians and commenters for giving in to the left and reneging on his promises. Even his most devoted allies left him hanging alone. And surely enough, this worked: less than 24 hours later, Netanyahu retracted the agreement, stating that he had “heard the people’s cry.”

Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister. // REUTERS

Soon thereafter, faced with having to explain this astonishingly acrobatic flip from yes to no, Netanyahu resorted to what he does best: divide and conquer.

He uploaded to Facebook a short statement suggesting the reason for the agreement’s falling apart was in fact an NGO called the New Israel Fund. He alleged that the NGO had caused foreign states to retract their decision to accept deportees from Israel, and called it unpatriotic and anti-Israeli, specifically for its being largely foreign-funded. An NGO worth 300 million, NIS was to blame, he said, for his government’s diplomatic conundrums.

The internet roared. The left mourned. The right, which had attacked Netanyahu, immediately quieted down and began cheering him on again– and then, began aiming its arrows at left-wing activists, calling them traitors, backsliders and foreign agents. The far-right NGO “Im Tirtzu” uploaded– in remarkable proximity to Netanyahu’s statement, by the way– a propaganda video depicting the NIF and its president, Talia Sasson, as foreign agents who operate as a fifth column in Israeli society. Death threats soon ensued.

Netanyahu had done it again: with just two minutes (or so) of pure hate, the tides changed. He was soon adored again as the one and only Big Brother, the “protector of Israel” (as he once professed he wished to be remembered). The masses rallied behind his leadership once more, turning their attention to the made-up demon that is the NIF and the Israeli left in general.

The furious public found in the telescreen an image of Talia Sasson and a logo of the NIF on which to spill its rage, which had climaxed mere seconds before Israel’s own BB reappeared in the form of Netanyahu’s calm and reassuring image.

War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength, and only Bibi can lead us.

Ido Dembin is pursuing his master’s degree in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. He is focusing on the right to free speech in margins of society and the silencing of critical speech and conduct toward governmental policies in contemporary Israel. He is a Tel-Aviv University-educated lawyer (L.L.B.) with background in International Relations. Ido is a blog writer for RightsViews. 

The Politics of Search and Rescue Operations

by Morgan Cronin-Webb, an M.A. student in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University

Since 2013, search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean have been a highly contentious issue in the media and European politics. In February, students, professors and human rights scholars at Columbia University were fortunate enough to hear Dr. Craig Spencer, director of Global Health in Emergency Medicine at New York-Presbyterian, speak on the politics of search and rescue operations.

Dr. Spencer works in public health both in New York, providing clinical care, and internationally, dealing with issues as wide ranging as access to legal documentation in Indonesia to the coordination of an epidemiologist response to Ebola in Guinea. His most recent posting was on a Doctors without Borders search and rescue mission in the Mediterranean. He began his discussion at Columbia University by giving background to the current refugee crisis: Dr. Spencer explained that the difference today in dealing with refugee issues is “the scale of the problem” and “how we are dealing with it.” Contrary to public opinion and media representations, he made it clear that developing countries, which are already “vulnerable and fragile,” bear the brunt of the current crisis in terms of hosting refugees.

For example, migration has happened across Africa for hundreds of years as people moved to North Africa where there were more jobs. This was especially the case during the beginning of Muammar Gadhafi’s rule in Libya, Spencer said. He gave the example of Bangladeshi men who used to travel willingly into Tripoli, but who are now more recently being trafficked. Spencer explains that because Malta, an archipelago in the central Mediterranean, has not signed the refugee convention, Italy does the search and rescue operations near Libya, which remains a currently unstable country. The passing Italian coastguard is required to help boats in distress that are outside of Libya’s sovereign land. Spencer explained that distress can include any boat that is still running but that is unlikely to last long. Further, he asserted that the Italian coastguard may destroy boats in the Mediterranean in order to prevent smugglers from reusing the sea faring boats that people take from Libya.

Dr. Craig Spencer gave a talk at Columbia University on search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean in February 2018. // Lara Nettelfield

One particularly jarring image in Spencer’s talk was his anecdote of people stitching their family phone numbers into their clothes, in case they do not survive the journey. It highlights the fact that migrants are highly aware of the risks that they are taking but often take the risk anyway, absent viable alternatives.

Spencer explained that Medecins Sans Frontieres tries to give a sense of humanity back to those that board their boats. This is especially important because migrants often endure routine rape, beatings, and torture during their journeys. Bangladeshi men, in particular, are seen to be “cash cows,” so they are more likely to be detained time and time again, until their families send money.

A picture of a boy’s drawing of his journey was projected during the talk. The disturbing details that were added to his account, including the number of days he spent in each place, along with the conditions, experiences of torture, degrading treatment, and the complexity and length of the route, left an unforgettable image for the audience.

Spencer went on to discuss why the situation in the Mediterranean remains so contentious, pointing to the EU-Turkey deal of 2016. In this controversial “one in, one out” deal, one refugee in Greece is returned to Turkey in exchange for one refugee in Turkey finding asylum in Europe. The deal, under which Turkey received €6 billion, was an effort by European states and the EU to decrease incentives for migrants to journey to Europe. As a result, Spencer purports that fewer people made the journey from Turkey to Greece and instead came up through the central Mediterranean since the deal has been in place. This erodes the EU states’ moral high ground when it comes to human rights, as Turkey lacks a stellar record in protecting human rights and has violated the principle of non-refoulement, which in the 1951 United Nations Convention offers a person protection against return to a country where he or she fears persecution.

The conversation with Dr. Spencer next turned to the role of populist governments in fueling anti-migration sentiment. For example, Italy threatened to close down its port (which would have been against maritime law) in response to a lack of responsibility-sharing from other European states, such as France and England. Further, Spencer explained that an anti-migrant party majority recently won elections in Italy.

National and international attention was further galvanized by the Lampedusa shipwreck, where nearly 1,000 migrants drowned just off the coast of Italy. This led to the Mare Nostrum humanitarian operation by the Italian military aimed at confronting the crisis of drownings in the Strait of Sicily. Following this, the European Council’s Operation Sofia in the Mediterranean has focused on catching smugglers and on border security, rather than search and rescue missions.

Since 2013, search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean have been a highly contentious issue in the media. // Lara Nettelfield

Another issue of contention was the fact that NGOs conducting search and rescue operations from privately-owned ships in the Mediterranean were asked to sign a code of conduct by the Italian government, making it harder for NGOs to carry out their search and rescue missions, Spencer said. He claims that “the only thing that happens when people are prevented from being rescued is that more people drown.” The code made NGOs feel like they had done something bad and also lowered their profile in the media. One privately funded group even raised money for a boat to take people back to Libya.

Spencer next moved the conversation to Europe’s externalization of border controls and use of development aid to stem migration flows. Instead of supporting search and rescue teams, Europe and Italy turned to supporting the Libyan coastguard, for example. Spencer noted that millions of dollars were spent on training them. Despite this training, the Libyan coastguard have shot and stolen from migrants, something Spencer says he has witnessed himself. He indicated that the EU is essentially supporting militias, supplying guns and medical supplies, which are used at detention centers. In January, Libya was not paid, so they started sending people across the Mediterranean again, and the number of militias in Libya increased.

Spencer added that the majority of people pass through Libya and Niger. Most people in Agadez, for example, have migrated through the desert, so an attempt was also made by the EU to stop people migrating there. The EU’s Sahel policy resulted in Niger making it illegal to migrate or to transport people. Spencer indicated that the EU has further invested in and supported development in West Africa, another attempt by the EU and UN to stop all migration.

However, he explained that even with these policies and more money being spent, people are still going to migrate. If you don’t have traffickers or smugglers whose livelihood is transport, security risks may actually increase as some people may resort to terrorism. For example, 80 percent of Lake Chad has dried up, so people there are more likely to turn to Boko Haram if they cannot migrate through the region, he said. Certain policies may actually make migrants more vulnerable and raise risks.

Spencer concluded his talk by emphasizing that people would rather die at sea than stay in Libya. Further, he says that sending money has not helped. This is a global issue that needs a global response. Conversations like Spencer’s raise the question of why so much time and money is spent on externalizing border controls and securitizing migrant issues rather than providing safe and legal routes to Europe.

Morgan Cronin-Webb is a Human Rights master’s student at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Columbia University.  

 

What Does a Career in Human Rights Look Like? The Experts Weigh in

By Rowena Kosher, a blog writer for RightsViews and a student in the School of General Studies at Columbia University

The Institute for the Study of Human Rights held its annual human rights career panel last month, offering students the chance to hear from individuals in a variety of human rights careers. The panel was an opportunity for future practitioners to gain insight into human rights in action outside of academic study at Columbia University.

The undergraduate and graduate students who attended the event held at Columbia’s International Affairs Building posed questions about their professional futures in human rights. The panelists, all career veterans in the field, helped answer student concerns by sharing stories about their career paths, their experiences, and other practical advice.

What are the most rewarding parts of a career in human rights, and what are the challenges?

The Institute for the Study of Human Rights held its annual human rights career panel in February. // Michelle Chouinard

The panelists agreed that the human rights field can be complicated and frustrating at times. Victories don’t always happen, but it is important to be happy with the measurable successes that do occur. Sofia Coelho Candeias, a member of the UN Team of Experts on Sexual Violence and Rule of Law, said that accumulative successes are a huge source of pride over time: the results you want may not happen immediately, she said, but in retrospect successes do occur. In the DRC, where she works currently, for example, they went from zero police units for sexual violence in 2008 to 12 today.

Whether on a policy or field level, it is very rare to have the opportunity to make a real difference in any job, said Aida Martirous-Nejad, the special assistant to the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in New York. “What job would I rather do?” she asked, speaking to the unique ability of a human rights career to impact real change through action, policy and community-building.

Rosalind McKenna, who works for the Open Society Foundation’s public health program chimed in to say how rewarding it is to support individuals so that they can may make their own voices and challenges heard. Yes, there’s a lot of bureaucracy in larger organizations, added Farnoosh Hashemian, a human rights lawyer in Iran. But you spend your time connecting with like-minded human rights defenders, all of whom are incredible people dedicated to their jobs, she said. Coelho concurred, saying that people who do public service tend to really like their job. Otherwise, they would all have to quit, she said.

What skills do I need in order to have a career in human rights? What are employers looking for?

The panelists answered student questions by sharing their experiences and advice. // Michelle Chouinard

Every human rights career is different, but there are definitely skills that come in handy, the panelists agreed. Every single person in the human rights field is there because they care deeply about human rights issues and are willing to “fight the uphill battle,” said Matthew Kennis, the program director of the Libertas Center, an organization located in New York City that provides medical, emotional and structural support to victims of torture. Kennis talked about what he would look for in a prospective applicant. He currently leads staffing for the Libertas Center. Important to him is the ability of the candidate to learn quickly. The candidate must have a genuine narrative of why they actually want to be there: how will they connect their interests to their career goals? Build yourself as a whole person, Kennis suggested. Trust the path that your career takes.

Coelho mentioned the importance of fieldwork, especially for young advocates just starting their careers. Each member of the panel spent a significant amount of time on their career journey doing fieldwork. Coelho also pinpointed kindness to others as the most important character trait needed in human rights jobs. Being open to listening to others is the only way you will survive in this field— you will get so much more done when you are kind to people, she said.

Martirious-Nejad also stressed optimism. In human rights work, you will be told “No!” nine times out of 10, she said, but you can’t be a pessimist in this work. You have to be able to adapt and move forward despite challenges.

Hashemian spoke of the fact that getting jobs in the field is highly competitive, but she encouraged students to persevere. All panelists agreed that networking is essential to success, along with development of interpersonal communication skills. Human rights is a team effort, and you’ve got to be a team player, said Hashemian. Humble, too, added Coelho. McKenna recommended taking the time to have a cohesive, polished CV and working on your ability to sell yourself as a person, not just as a list of achievements on paper. Other technical skills the panelists recommended include knowing at least two if not three or four languages. “Take immersion courses!” said Coelho.

Do I have to go to law school?

The panelists offered advice on continuing studies in law school and pursuing fieldwork around the world. // Michelle Chouinard

McKenna, Coelho, Martirous-Nejad, and Hashemian all have law degrees. Broadly speaking, they said, law school is probably a good idea, even if you do not become a practicing attorney. The critical thinking skills alone are worth learning. Martirous-Nejad mentioned that because she is a lawyer, she has had more access to jobs than her peers who are not attorneys. The decision, however, is up to the individual student. Law school is costly. Perhaps do some fieldwork first, said Coelho, before committing to that investment.

You keep talking about the field. What is it?

Fieldwork is an integral part of a lot of human rights work, the panel said. Fieldwork can take place domestically or internationally, although often international work is the most common. You can look for jobs with larger organizations such as Amnesty International or the UN, says Hashemian, but you can also contact smaller local nonprofits in the location where you want to work.

Fieldwork will teach you to be humble and follow a leader, said Kennis. // Michelle Chouinard

Regarding the question of where to go based on geography or issue area, Coelho said, “What you want to do defines the field.” Sometimes, she said, issue areas are more important than a certain location. McKenna recommended that individuals looking for fieldwork check out the database of the Open Society Foundation (OSF), which has a list of the non-profits that OSF has funded.

Fieldwork will teach you to be humble and follow a leader, said Kennis. It is your chance to interact with those you’re helping directly on the ground, added Coelho. Yes, some places can be dangerous, as Hashemian pointed out, but you will receive security training and are often well cared for, especially when you focus on building strong relationships with the locals.

At the conclusion of the career panel event, students were offered some time to network with the panelists. It was clear that the panelists are enthusiastic and passionate about the work they do in the human rights field. The panel represented an invaluable opportunity for students to get a taste for what a future in human rights might be like.

For more professional development and career advice, check out ISHR’s website.

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Career Panelist Bios:

Sofia Coelho Candeias is a member of the UN Team of Experts on Sexual Violence and Rule of Law. In this position, she focuses on sexual violence prevention and accountability in the DRC, CAR, Mali, Nigeria and Iraq. Her job frequently entails flying from the UN headquarters in New York to the various countries where she covers and surveys the status of sexual violence. She has spent significant time in the field, holding positions such as senior associate and criminal justice coordinator at the International Center for Transitional Justice, project manager of UNDP’s Women’s Access to Justice in the Eastern DRC, and coordinator of the Sexual Violence Unit of the European Union in the DRC.

Farnoosh Hashemian is a human rights lawyer who focuses on national security and human rights, constitutional reform, access to justice, and women’s rights. Also an author, she has written the book, “The Trial and Diary of Abbass Amir Entezam, the Longest-Held Prisoner of Conscience in the Middle East.” Growing up in Iran, Hashemian was an activist from a young age, always inclined toward justice and human rights. Currently, she works in Iran supporting various advocacy organizations and provides technical support to organizations in Afghanistan.

Matthew Kennis is the program director of the Libertas Center, located in New York City. He is also a graduate of the ISHR’s Master of Arts in Human Rights Studies program. The Libertas Center provides medical, emotional and structural support for victims of torture who are rehabilitating back into society. As director, Kennis hires people and supports and runs the Libertas advocacy work.

Rosalind McKenna works for the the Open Society Public Health Program within the Open Society Foundation (OSF), a philanthropic organization that supports governance for health, health rights and law. OSF funds health projects overseas. McKennna helps to find individuals, non-profits, and NGOs to whom OSF can provide funds. She has also worked as the coordinator for Amnesty International Ireland’s program on economic, social and cultural rights.

Aida Martirous-Nejad works as the special assistant to the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in New York. Much of her work takes place at the UN Headquarters where she covers Europe as a desk officer. Part of her job includes working toward integrating human rights language into codified national and international policy.

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Rowena Kosher is an undergraduate student at Columbia University School of General Studies. She plans to major in human rights with a possible focus on gender and sexuality studies. Her writing can be found on her personal blog, fromvermiliontoviolet.wordpress.com, and at elephantjournal.com, where she is an occasional contributor. Rowena is a blog writer for RightsViews.

The Story of a Young Tunisian Mother’s Struggle for Safety

By Izzy Tomico Ellis, a journalist and activist who has been heavily involved in the refugee crisis since 2015. Additional reporting by Niamh Keady-Tabbal.

Syrine* is sitting on the edge of a bed inside a tidy room for two, in City Plaza — a squatted hotel in Greece where solidarians from all over the world have flocked to bring respite to its refugee residents. Her little son started walking yesterday. In between our conversation, she holds out her hands to catch him as he falls down. Soothing him, she recalls, “I looked on Facebook to find out what to do when he was crying. I was alone with a baby…I didn’t know anything.” 

When we asked her if we could write down her story, she smiled, “I’ve thought about telling it a lot.”

The strength with which she carried herself had compelled me to ask, and at the same time made me worry she’d laugh. For her, a 21-year-old mother, bravery comes so naturally. 

When we first met in Athens in the January darkness, she explained that her husband had gone out the previous night to buy cigarettes and never came home. In the morning, she had called the main hospitals.

“He wasn’t there. I was relieved a little,’’ Syrine recounts shakily. But a few hours later, she had discovered he was in prison after being caught without the legal papers for refugees in Athens.

Too scared to return to where she had been staying, Syrine had been pushing her son, Salah*, around the streets in a buggy ever since.

Alone and homeless, remarkably she kept a clear head. She spoke calmly in English, asking for a lawyer to come the next day to try and resolve the situation for herself and her family, and arranged a room at City Plaza.

It wasn’t the first time. The young Tunisian woman has spent nearly three years running to protect herself, her husband and their son. Salah was just 8-months-old when they had to flee their country after Syrine’s relatives threatened to kill her in revenge for bringing dishonor to the family. The couple had managed to marry just before Salah was born, but Syrine’s family continues to look for her.

“My brother would do it, I know he would,” she said. Until then, she had been at university, hiding the relationship and pregnancy from her family. “I didn’t want an abortion; it’s easy, but it was my baby with the man I loved.”

The International Women’s Day march in Athens, March 08, 2018. // Izzy Tomico Ellis

She described the double-life she was leading in Tunisia, scrolling through old Facebook posts and event pages of the electronic music nights she and her husband would attend in the city of Sousse, close to the country’s capital, Tunis.

Tunisia has made significant legal advancements in the push toward gender equality, including lifting a ban on Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men and ending a law that meant rapists could escape punishment by marrying their victims. However, systematic violence against women still persists: In 2016, the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women said 70 percent of Tunisian women were victims of abuse and honor killings in Tunisia are still reported.

“One man told me there was no hope for asylum, and I should just go back,” she shakes her head . “He has no idea… My father is a famous man, he cares about what the people think, not about me —  we had to leave.”

After fleeing to Turkey, they arrived on the Greek island of Lesvos. Syrine describes what she saw in the camp as unbelievable. “Everywhere children without clothes or shoes,” she says. “Some people stay there for over a year —  one year!” Her eyes widen. “ I would go crazy.”

Moria camp has become an infamous symbol of the European refugee crisis where living conditions that lie behind barbed wire fences have been repeatedly condemned by leading human rights organizations. 

“We went to a hotel the next day and travelled to the mainland illegally. I couldn’t live there… with a baby,” she shakes her head.

“I think he misses him. He was happier before,” she gestures to Salah, as he refuses food in a restaurant close by to where they are staying.

Syrine has spent the last few weeks trying to arrange paperwork for her husband, to no avail. As the pair had left the previous island camp without the correct documents, she was told she would have to return if their asylum case was to be processed as a couple. Though, Syrine has relentlessly tried other ways.

“Every day I wake up early, I go to this organization — Katahaki (the Greek Asylum Service) — but each day passes and nothing happens,” she says. “Every night I would fall asleep and hope tomorrow will bring a solution.’’

But it hasn’t, so today she is leaving. Her hair is more blonde, and she’s cut it shorter. Her husband is still imprisoned, and Syrine is forced to leave her safe room in the hotel —  to travel back to a camp and live alone.

“It’s a dangerous step, but I must do it. I must go back there to help my husband,” she says. Her voice falters. Only a few days were spent at the camp before —  but she’s seen enough to know the dangers, the difficulties, the fear —  not being able to go to the toilet after a certain time, sleeping with her belongings wrapped in her arms, with her baby.

We find Syrine’s suitcase and bags parked outside the hotel. She comes out a few minutes later. Her face is made up. She looks European. It’s deliberate, for fear of police and discrimination. She pulls a hat over her son’s dark curls, speaking to him in English. Walking toward the train, she runs into friends on the street, another goodbye.

She made the same trip, just in the other direction, with her husband only months before. The closer we get, the more her face looks as if it will crumble —  her nervousness at the uncertainty that awaits her and her little baby lurching closer and closer each station we pass —  but it never does.

“I studied one year of architecture, then nursing, but now I think I want to be a mechanic,” she had told us in the days before.

Off the train, she gathers herself again, struggling to collapse the buggy into a taxi as the driver tuts impatiently, the hinges catching on baby toys —  as ever, she holds her cool —  once again methodically packing her life belongings.

 

*Syrine and Salah are false names used to protect real identities.

 

Izzy Tomico Ellis is a journalist and activist who has been heavily involved in the refugee crisis since 2015. Izzy graduated with a first class honours degree in journalism from the University of Westminster in 2016 and is currently based in Greece. Additional reporting for this article was contributed by Niamh Keady-Tabbal.

 

Does the Israeli High Court Uphold Palestinian Rights?

By Olivia Heffernan, a blog writer for RightsViews and a M.P.A. candidate at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs 

Michael Sfard, an Israeli lawyer representing Palestinian victims of civil rights violations, has encountered numerous ethical dilemmas in his work. In his newly published book, “The Wall and the Gate: Israel Palestine and the Legal Battle for Human Rights,” Sfard offers “a radically new perspective on a much-covered conflict and a subtle, painful reckoning with the moral ambiguities inherent in the pursuit of justice.” Speaking at Columbia Law School in February, Sfard opened his lecture by posing to the audience the ethical dilemma that was the impetus for his book: “By working in the Israeli courts, am I a naïve and involuntary collaborator to the scam that Palestinians have recourse to justice?”

In Israel, Palestinians seeking redress for abuse are often reliant on the Israeli High Court of Justice— which, according to Sfard, is adjudicated by judges often unsympathetic toward the plight of Palestinians. Despite these sentiments about the legal system, he fights tooth and nail to provide fair and equal representation to Palestinians.

But, the divide between Israel and Palestine is not only as explicit as physical walls and fences, it is also evident in the rights each population is granted, Sfard says: Israelis are granted civil and political rights, while Palestinians are frequently denied these and more.

Denial of equality and fair hearings, for example, is in direct violation with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 10 states, “Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.” Reports from the region indicate that the basic human rights of Palestinian prisoners— many of whom are youths— are routinely denied, with prisoners being illegally detained and subjected to abusive treatment. One youth, Fawzi al-Junaidi, a 16-year-old Palestinian, reports he was beaten and denied care after being charged with throwing stones at a group of armed Israeli soldiers. Another, Ahed Tamimi, turned 17 in an Israel detention facility after being detained from her home in the middle of the night.

The wall built by Israel in Abu Dis, an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem. // Flickr

Equating the Israeli treatment of Palestinians to the South African apartheid, Sfard is passionate about his work but can’t help but feel discouraged by the results of it.

“Where there is a hegemony and an elite, a community of those who have next to a community of those who have not— it’s only natural that an apartheid community will be created,” Sfard said.

Ido Dembin, an attorney from Israel and a blog writer for RightsViews, noted that it is important to understand that the Israeli courts are stuck between a rock and a hard place: “On one hand, it’s an institution of the State of Israel that was never meant to be the flag-bearer of justice in the occupied territories but only areas where Israeli law applies (it does not apply in the West Bank or Gaza). On the other hand, it is perceived as a last-ditch option for those, like Sfard, who have given up on winning elections and changing the government in favor of minor, step-by-step court-sanctioned progress,” he said. “In this sense, the court is expected to balance Israeli national narratives as well as fears and security concerns, with the rights of three million Palestinians in the West Bank who, in turn, have no other system to go to and rely on it for solutions. The court needs not only balance justice and law, but also individual rights with group rights.”

Sfard lamented the contradictory foundations on which Israel was founded: Israel was “built on a premise of raging nationalism, militarism, the Zionist idea that a Jew would never again be a victim even at the expense of victimizing others,” he said. “The thought was, if we have to choose between being victims or victimizing others, we will choose the latter. A disregard for those who are paying the price of national revival and independence makes racism a part of this issue.”

Dembin added that “paradoxically, the more the government shifts to the right, the more the courts are forced to counteract— thus pushing it slowly out of mainstream Israeli consensus and risking its position as an authority and important part of the checks and balances system.”

“The Wall and the Gate: Israel Palestine and the Legal Battle for Human Rights,” written by Michael Sfard, was published in 2018. // Amazon

The Israeli court system as the predominant means through which Palestinians can seek justice begs the questions: what justice, whose justice, and is justice delayed really justice at all?

In response to these unanswerable and multifaceted queries, Sfard emphasized the importance of choosing one’s battles and avoiding defeatist mentalities.

“The Israeli High Court is an occupier’s court and it does not provide justice, but from time to time it does provide remedy. We have a role from within even though there is a fight being waged from outside,” he said. For Sfard, facilitating remedies for the Palestinian people, even if only incrementally, is progress in the right direction.

His review of over four decades of human rights litigation in Israel pertaining to the occupation, which serves as the primary content of his 500-page book, has led him to a few conclusions. The first is that while law cannot be the primary vehicle to ending the occupation, it does have a role in advancing political movement for change. Secondly, it is important to refrain from dichotomizing the legal system: not every court victory leads to success and not every court defeat leads to failure. If court decisions are measured by bringing an end to a civil regime, then one risks overlooking the importance of remedies facilitated through the court. Finally, and certainly not last, while lawyers must master language, human rights lawyers must also invoke values through identifying rights violations and means of remediation.

It is for this reason that Sfard believes human rights activists are at the epicenter of the movement to end the occupation.

Olivia Heffernan is a student at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs concentrating in social and urban policy and specializing in journalism. She is president of the Criminal Justice Reform Working Group (CJR) and has previously worked for human rights-related nonprofits. She is originally from Washington, D.C., but she has spent multiple years living abroad. Olivia is a blog writer for RightsViews.

 

Criminalizing Abortion: A Threat to Women’s Rights and Lives

By Rowena Kosher, a blog writer for RightsViews and a student in the School of General Studies at Columbia University

In November, the United States Congress heard a bill proposal that would amend the federal criminal code and ban abortions after 20 weeks of gestation. The “Heartbeat Protection Act of 2017,” introduced by Steve King (R-Iowa), renewed conversations among human rights advocates about abortion and its criminalization that have been ongoing for decades both in the United States and around the world.

There is no shortage of opinions when it comes to legislation involving a woman’s choice about her body in the face of an unwanted pregnancy. Globally, countries have enacted laws suppressing women’s voices, health, and dignity, stripping away their human right to control a pregnancy. Today, for example, the Brazilian Congress is in the middle of considerations to ban all forms of abortion. Nicaragua’s 2006 abortion ban has already put women in jail for terminating unwanted pregnancies. Countries from Europe to Africa to Latin America continue to police the female body.

The human right to control a pregnancy was confirmed at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, where its declaration states: “The human rights of women include their right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. Equal relationships between women and men in matters of sexual relations and reproduction, including full respect for the integrity of the person, require mutual respect, consent and shared responsibility for sexual behavior and its consequences.”

The Center for Reproductive Rights categorizes national policies on abortion into four categories ranging from least to most severe: where abortions are permitted “without restriction as to reason,” “only on socioeconomic grounds,” “only to preserve health,” or “only to save the woman’s life or not permitted all together” (see interactive map). In the most severe cases, as in some Central American countries like Nicaragua and El Salvador, abortion has not only banned but fully criminalized: women and doctors face murder charges if abortions are attempted, even when the woman faces imminent death because of her pregnancy.

A map that shows abortion laws around the world. Countries in red are those which only permit abortion to save the woman’s life, or don’t permit it at all. // Center for Reproductive Rights

In those countries where abortion is entirely banned or severely restricted, women find themselves oppressed and hurt, both mentally and physically. As female bodies are controlled by government policy, women’s freedom of choice and agency in their reproductive decisions is diminished, violating their rights to dignity. Additionally, abortion bans create a dangerous situation for women’s health, as women turn to self-abortions or unsafe illegal procedures, which puts their lives at risk. This is not to mention the mental and physical health tolls of abortion restriction, especially in the cases where a female becomes pregnant by means of incest, abuse or rape. If abortion is illegal after rape, the woman is forced to carry her child to term and through labor, potentially re-traumatizing a pregnant-by-rape survivor. A widely-cited 1996 paper by Holmes et al. determined in a three-year longitudinal study that among victims of reproductive age (12-45), there is a 5 percent per pregnancy rape, or about 32,101 rape-related pregnancies in the United States each year.

Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights enshrines the right of all to “the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.” This and other human rights covenants create the standard of international human rights law, yet continued restrictions on abortions mean these rights are not being fully realized for some women. In a world where the UN has made their Fifth Sustainable Development Goal to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls,” legalized abortion must become a prioritized topic of conversation with real reform if we are to move in the direction toward greater gender equality.

Arguments in favor of legalizing abortion tend to have one of two characteristics: those that argue reproductive rights are women’s rights and those concerned with the health effects of criminalized abortion on unsafe abortion rates and complications, maternal mortality, and female well-being. Central to the argument that every human has a right to physical and mental health is the idea that every human, male and female alike, has autonomy over their own body. Yet, historically, the capacity to carry a child has not remained an issue of female choice; rather, it has become a systematic means of reducing women to no more than their bodies and sexuality, enforced by policies and regulations that make decisions of the womb decisions of the state.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) released a statement on October 23 calling all states in the United States to immediately adopt measures that allow women all sexual and reproductive rights including “rights related to non-discrimination, to life, to personal integrity, to health, to dignity, and to access to information.” These are rights with strong legal bases, explicitly stated in multiple international documents such as the UN Declaration on Human Rights, which has influenced many state and national constitutions. A 2009 Amnesty International report on the total abortion ban in Nicaragua indicates that when women lack access to safe and legal abortion, their fundamental human rights are at “grave risk.” The United Nations Committee Against Torture has likewise expressed concern over the idea of a total abortion ban as exposing women and girls to a continuous threat of violations to their rights, lives, and mental health, especially when these women and girls are victims of rape. Countries such as Ireland and Brazil have also been questioned on the international stage in response to their restrictive abortion bans. With the attention and clear concern for women’s rights to sexuality and reproduction by established human rights organizations and international committees, it is clear abortion reform is not to be taken lightly.

The second argument advanced in favor of legalizing abortion relates to the severe health risks posed by criminalization. There is a proven direct correlation between restrictions on abortion and high rates of unsafe abortion. The World Health Organization has determined that abortion is one of the safest medical procedures when performed under proper and safe conditions to guidelines. However, unsafe abortion, which is defined as “a procedure for terminating an unintended pregnancy either by individuals without the necessary skills or in an environment that does not conform to medical standard,” is immensely dangerous to women’s health. Approximately 20 million unsafe abortions occur worldwide every year, and about one in six women die due to complications of the unsafe procedure. These rates are much higher in countries that have very restrictive abortion regulation: there are 23 unsafe abortions per 1,000 women among the 82 countries with the most restrictions and only two unsafe abortions per 1,000 women in the 52 countries where abortion is allowed upon request, according to the World Health Organization.

Yet, despite the data and backing of numerous international health organizations, UN committees, and human rights groups, abortion remains a hotly debated topic. Arguments framed in religious and cultural terms take precedence over women’s health and well-being. The female is reduced to her womb, used as a pawn for governments to manipulate, and restricted from autonomy of body, mind, and identity. A woman’s reproductive capacity, in the terms of restrictive abortion law, is greater than her reproductive rights. Perhaps the data ought to speak for itself: legalizing abortion needs to take precedence in the current moment when criminalization remains a threat to women’s rights and lives.

Rowena Kosher is an undergraduate student at Columbia University School of General Studies. She plans to major in human rights with a possible focus on gender and sexuality studies. Her writing can be found on her personal blog, fromvermiliontoviolet.wordpress.com, and at elephantjournal.com, where she is an occasional contributor. Rowena is a blog writer for RightsViews.

Reflections on the UN Human Rights Committee: 40 Years of Practice

by Ido Dembin, a blog writer for RightsViews and a M.A. student in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University

On January 24, Columbia University Institute for the Study of Human Rights hosted a discussion on the role and impact of the UN Human Rights Committee with David Kretzmer, an Israeli expert in international and constitutional law. Kretzmer served as a member of the UN Human Rights Committee, including a two-year term as its vice-chairperson.

The discussion with Kretzmer focused on the evolution of the UN Human Rights Committee since its establishment 40 years ago. Having personally served on the committee, Kretzmer offered distinctive lessons on how the committee’s role and perception by other actors such as nation states, NGOs and individuals— as well as its self-perception— have changed.

He began the discussion by emphasizing the historic background of the committee: The UN Human Rights Committee is a treaty body comprised of 18 renowned experts from across the world who meet three times a year for three to four week sessions to consider reports submitted by no less than 169 states on their compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The committee also considers any individual petitions concerning 116 states parties to the Optional Protocol. It is one of ten UN Human Rights bodies responsible for overseeing implementation of particular treaties.

Kretzmer emphasized the decade-long debate at the heart of the committee’s work regarding its actual role and scope of its mandate. For many years, the committee’s role was unclear, and its mandate to investigate states’ actions and commitments to the covenant’s ideals was undetermined, even overlooked, to avoid causing unrest among member states. With the committee established at the height of the Cold War in 1977, its work was further obstructed by members from the Soviet bloc. As the discussion at Columbia noted, the underlying message in the early days was that the committee should refrain from criticism of states and serve mainly as a means of constructive dialogue between committee members and representatives of states.

David Kretzmer, an Israeli expert in international and constitutional law, speaks to students during a discussion on the role and impact of the UN Human Rights Committee. // Michelle Chouinard

This meant the committee was a place of “friendly relations among nations,” Kretzmer told RightsViews. The committee was not allowed to use any information pertaining to human rights maintenance or violation other than the information submitted in states parties’ reports. In other words, so long as a country did not voluntarily report its own wrongdoings, the committee was largely toothless in examining, reprimanding or even recommending changes to its policies.

Furthermore, all decisions within the committee had to be decided by consensus, rather than by a vote. This reality was true for most of the first 23 years of the committee’s existence. Since the end of the Cold War, the unwritten rules that once limited the committee so heavily have changed in rapid fashion.

The committee began to shift from being a mere scene of “friendly relations” to becoming more informed, less limited and thus more able to actually monitor compliance with the Covenant under which it was established. It began receiving, for example, information regarding states’ behavior, mainly from NGOs— a phenomenon that became central to human rights advocacy in the 1990s onwards. Furthermore, political differences, while surely still felt, had changed: they weren’t Cold War-inspired and centric anymore. The committee could now finally arrive at concluding observations regarding a state’s compliance with the covenant.

The discussion also emphasized the differences between the committee and the better known, perhaps even controversial, Human Rights Council (which replaced the UN Commission on Human Rights in 2006). The later, a political rather than professional body, is a charter-based mechanism where states can debate human rights concerns. Kretzmer stressed the differences between the two bodies, their work and subsequent reputation during the discussion, emphasizing the need for better balance in the way the two bodies interact. Kretzmer hinted at some criticism of the council with regard to its failure to deny membership to nation states known for serial and consistent violations of human rights.

Before concluding, Kretzmer addressed further issues raised by members of the audience, such as the role of international and national courts and other legal institutions, the global effort at criminalizing aggression, and more. He stressed the importance of the human rights treaty bodies and treaty signatories while also acknowledging the gap between a nation’s willingness to declare its loyalty to human rights ideals and actual actions to advance human rights-based morality, legislation and enforcement.

In concluding, Kretzmer discussed the paradox of human rights monitoring: the countries with better human rights records are generally more open societies. Thus, there is a great deal of information available on their human rights violations. In contrast, the countries with the worst human rights regimes (North Korea, for example) are often closed societies, meaning there is an overall lack of information on their human rights practices. Thus, from the treaty bodies’ concluding observations it may sometimes appear that the more open and democratic societies suffer from more human rights violations than closed and non-democratic states.

Ido Dembin is pursuing his master’s degree in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. He is focusing on the right to free speech in margins of society and the silencing of critical speech and conduct toward governmental policies in contemporary Israel. He is a Tel-Aviv University-educated lawyer (L.L.B.) with background in International Relations. Ido is a blog writer for RightsViews. 

Freedom of Expression Under Threat

By Graeme Reid, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender rights program at Human Rights Watch

Invisibility and stigma go hand in hand. “Coming out” became a central part of the gay liberation movement in the United States and Europe from the 1960s, a strategy adopted as a prerequisite for claiming rights. And in the late 1980s, in response to the AIDS crisis, ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) adopted the slogan “Silence=Death,” which became the rallying cry of a movement challenging silence and stigma. Globally, in the past three decades, there has been a rapid increase in queer visibility, facilitated by many factors including images and ideas circulating through the internet, interconnectedness among LGBT organizations and individuals, and the global response to HIV/AIDS. 

As of 2017, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) has 1,228 member organizations in 132 countries. Yet visibility also comes with risks. As the visibility of sexual and gender minorities has increased, so too has the prevalence of laws that seek to ban public expressions of identity. When “the love that dare not speak its name” moved into the public square, LGBT activists in many parts of the world were treated with suspicion, accused of importing foreign concepts, promoting homosexuality, and threatening “traditional values.”

In the first week of January, a Chinese court accepted a case challenging a ban on depictions of homosexuality from online video platforms. The vague and sweeping regulations, imposed in June 2017 by the media regulatory authority under the Chinese government, prohibit portrayals of “abnormal sexual lifestyles or behavior,” including homosexuality. Also among the taboo subjects are portrayals of “Chinese imperialism,” “sexual liberation,” or “excessive drinking.” The guidelines were an attempt to bring internet content in line with Chinese television regulations that have explicitly banned depictions of same-sex relationships since 2016. This despite the fact that homosexuality is not criminalized in China, and the Chinese Society of Psychiatry removed homosexuality from its official classification of mental disorders in 2001. These new restrictions are part of a pattern of ever-tightening social control in China.

Similarly, Indonesia’s parliament is considering a revised broadcasting bill that would ban “showcasing lesbian, homosexual, bisexual, and transgender behaviors.” Lawmakers say that the ban could include dramas with gay characters, broadcasts advocating for the rights of LGBT people, and traditional folk performances that often include waria (loosely translated as “transgender women”).


A victim of the purge telling his story in a safe house in central Russia in April 2017. // Nataliya Vasilyeva for Human Rights Watch

Dede Oetomo, an activist, decried this threat to make waria characters, ubiquitous in Indonesian entertainment and beauty culture, invisible on broadcast media. Bobby Rizaldi, a lawmaker, said: “LGBT is not criminal, but if it enters the public sphere, if it is broadcast to the public, then of course it must be regulated.” Another member of parliament said that if the content were aimed at “fixing the abnormality” it would be allowed. The highly polarized debate about LGBT issues in Indonesia is shorthand for competing claims between pluralism and fundamentalism.  

In 2013, Russia imposed a national ban on “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors.” Similar propaganda-style legislation has been debated in Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova and Ukraine, leading to an increased public discussion of “traditional values” and the perceived threat posed by sexual and gender minorities. In 2017, the European Court of Human Rights condemned the Russian law for reinforcing stigma, encouraging homophobia, and discriminating against a vulnerable minority. Russia is obligated to abide by the ruling, yet continues to charge people under the law – an administrative offense that, at worst, imposes a fine. But its effects are widespread and insidious, leading to self-censorship and contributing to bias-motivated violence. The government of Vladimir Putin has used this law to mobilize popular support domestically and take on the mantle of protecting “traditional values” internationally.

Nigeria’s Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act (2014) goes a lot further than banning same-sex marriages. The law punishes establishing, supporting, and participating in gay organizations and public displays of affection with 10 years in prison. The law was passed in the midst of security concerns, corruption scandals and a looming election in Nigeria, serving its purpose as a political football.  

The idea that homosexuality can be improperly “promoted” is rooted in the fear of same-sex relations as a social contagion. Just as laws prohibiting same-sex conduct seek to regulate what consenting adults may and may not do with their bodies, so too do propaganda and promotion laws that seek to regulate what is permissible in the social sphere. Sodomy and propaganda laws are based on similar ideas of contagion and social pollution.  

In this respect, Chechnya is an extreme example. In April 2017, news broke of a systematic purge against gay and bisexual men, who were rounded up and tortured before being released to their families in public rituals of humiliation that encouraged so-called “honor-killings.” Alvi Karimov, spokesperson for the Chechen strongman, Ramzan Kadirov, said at the time, denying the abuses: “If there were such people [gays] in Chechnya, law enforcement agencies wouldn’t need to have anything to do with them because their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning.” In this discourse, gay people are completely erased from Chechnya. Their existence is impossible.  

Ibu Shinta, the founder of an Islamic boarding school and mosque for transgender women in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, chose to close down the institution under threats from fundamentalist groups in February 2016. // Kyle Knight for Human Rights Watch

One of the ways governments attempt to curtail visibility is by making it difficult for LGBT groups to operate.  In the past year alone, police raids in Uganda forced the closure of the Kampala International Queer Film Festival and a week of activities linked to Uganda Pride. In Turkey, the governor of Ankara imposed an indefinite ban on all public LGBT events in the province. In Egypt, after 75 people were arrested and 40 convicted in late 2017 after a rainbow flag was displayed at a music concert, the government imposed a media blackout on all positive depictions of homosexuality. And Tanzanian authorities suspended an organization that works on LGBT health rights and arrested a prominent South African human rights lawyer together with 12 of her colleagues and activist clients for “promoting homosexuality.”   

But in legal systems under which the judiciary enjoys a degree of independence, courts are playing an important role in providing a remedy. Recent court rulings in Botswana (2016), Kenya (2014) and (2015), Tunisia (2016), South Korea (2017), and Mozambique (2017) have asserted the right of LGBT groups to register and advocate for their rights, despite laws in some of these countries that restrict same-sex practice.

Claims such as those by Ugandan leader Yoweri Museveni that homosexuality is “un-African” can hardly stand in the face of an increasingly visible, mobilized, indigenous African LGBT movement, and the same holds true for other parts of the world. Homophobia is a convenient political tool precisely because it can be portrayed as a dangerous foreign influence. Symbols of a transnational movement, such as rainbow flags, pride parades, queer cultural events, or LGBT organizations can be used by unscrupulous politicians to stir moral panics about LGBT rights to distract attention from economic woes, social tensions, and political problems.

Graeme Reid is the LGBT rights director at Human Rights Watch and teaches at Columbia and Yale. Reid is teaching Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Human Rights at Columbia University this Spring 2018.