Author Archive for Editor

How U.S. Cities can Advance Abortion as a Human Right

Sexual and reproductive rights are foundational to gender equality. Access to abortion care is essential to the full realization of a person’s human rights. Indeed, international human rights mechanisms have had an impact on liberalizing national abortion laws by requiring that governments take affirmative action to ensure that women can access safe abortion care as part of fulfilling their obligations under human rights law. For instance, treaty monitoring bodies (TMBs) have consistently interpreted that safe abortion care is the application of several fundamental human rights guaranteed by international human rights law such as: the right to life; freedom from cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; liberty and security of the person; privacy; human dignity; health; and equality and non-discrimination.

Although abortion is legal in the United States, anti-choice groups and conservative lawmakers have been successful in restricting the right to an abortion. For example, the Hyde Amendment is legislation that for forty-two years has banned federal funds from covering abortion care for low-income women insured by Medicaid. The effects of the Hyde Amendment have been detrimental to American women. Despite the news that unintended pregnancy and abortion rates have fallen in the general population, abortions are becoming increasingly concentrated among poor women. U.S. constitutional law has upheld restrictions on abortion care, including the Hyde Amendment, leaving a large portion of reproductive age women without the ability to exercise their constitutional right to an abortion. In sum, poor pregnant people have been stripped of their right to choose because of their reliance on a government that will force them to give birth.

Unlike the U.S. Constitution, The Hyde Amendment could not withstand a human rights framework, which would require the government respect, protect and fulfill the right to an abortion. To name one notable example of this, the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty recently visited the U.S. and recognized the harms of the Hyde Amendment in his report, stating that: “Low-income women who would like to exercise their constitutional, privacy-derived right to access abortion services face legal and practical obstacles… This lack of access to abortion services traps many women in cycles of poverty.” The Special Rapporteur recommended that the U.S. recognize health as a human right. Contradictory to the U.S. constitutional framework that merely requires government non-interference upon rights, there is international consensus among human rights bodies that abortion rights are human rights that require affirmative government fulfillment.

At the federal level, the U.S. takes an inconsistent stance on human rights, often promoting human rights ideas elsewhere but failing to comply with human rights standards at home.. However, there is a movement of  U.S. cities that are adopting the human rights framework of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the international women’s rights treaty that the U.S. has yet to ratify. The Cities for CEDAW (C4C) movement has been instrumental in bringing awareness of human rights to the local level, with thirty-nine cities and counties putting forth a CEDAW resolution or ordinance committing to the principles of CEDAW. In contrast to the U.S. Constitution, CEDAW imposes an equality standard that requires all laws that disparately impact women be scrutinized to secure de jure and de facto equality for women. The CEDAW Committee, the monitoring body for the treaty, has repeatedly made clear that it considers restrictive abortion laws incompatible with the human rights of women. Therefore, the Hyde Amendment would violate a human rights framework, which would require that the state ensure that every woman, regardless of her income or race, could access the same rights

The C4C movement can have an impact on abortion access in the U.S. by building advocacy around abortion as a fundamental human right that is inherently linked to women’s rights outlined in the UN CEDAW treaty. Framing reproductive health as a human right is a paradigm shift toward destigmatizing abortion. Additionally, local CEDAW activists can instigate a political shift by embracing and utilizing the jurisprudence, General Comments, and Concluding Observations identified by the UN CEDAW Committee regarding abortion as a human right. Furthermore, the local U.S. CEDAW ordinances and resolutions can be used to support other pro-choice policies at the municipal, county or state level. The negative human rights impact of the Hyde Amendment, although law of the land, can be challenged by activists through utilizing a human rights lens on abortion access through local CEDAW ordinances and resolutions.

If the localities adopting CEDAW prioritize abortion access as a serious issue affecting women in their communities, it could be groundbreaking for sexual and reproductive rights around the country. The U.S. is almost 80% urban by population and therefore the C4C campaign could have a ripple effect in improving abortion access around the country. In the era of Trump and a majority conservative Supreme Court, women’s rights activists cannot afford to play it safe and concede to the fear and stigma perpetuated by conservatives and extreme religious groups. Utilizing the power of a human rights mechanism like a local CEDAW ordinance to challenge restrictions on abortion access like the Hyde Amendment could be instrumental in restoring the right to choose for our most vulnerable citizens.


By Jessica Pierson


Jessica holds an M.A. in Human Rights Studies from Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. Her graduate thesis research explored abortion as a human right in the United States and the role of CEDAW cities in challenging the Hyde Amendment.

The Future of Queer and Trans Rights

Aimee Stephens worked at a funeral home in Detroit for nearly six years when she wrote a letter telling her boss that she was transgender. Two weeks after, the Christian owned and operated funeral home terminated her job: not on the basis of job performance, but explicitly because she is transgender.

Aimee took her case to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which sued the funeral home for firing Aimee on the grounds of sex discrimination. Five years later, in March 2018, the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued a resounding victory for Aimee, stating that discriminating against transgender people is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.”

The lawyers representing the funeral home from the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) accused the court of expanding the definition of “sex” and argued for the word’s strict protectionism. They petitioned that the Supreme Court take up the case to determine if transgender individuals are protected under Title VII, which could have broader implications for the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals across the country.

“They make the concept of gender identity itself seem frivolous by denoting it as immutable. The petitioners make slippery slope arguments about bathrooms to stoke fear about transgender people in public space,” explained Chinyere Ezie, staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights. “Sex is socially constructed… when you consider gender and intersex identities, you are working with terrain that makes something scientific that actually eludes scientific description.”

Last Monday, Chinyere came to Columbia Law School to discuss the future of queer and trans rights with Katherine Franke, director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law and Sulzbacher Professor of Law. Chinyere has spent years advocating for racial and gender justice and LGBTQI rights. Previously, she was a Staff Attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center, and served as Trial Attorney at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commissions.

As a trans rights practitioner, Chinyere has won several crucial cases in the fight for trans and gender rights. Yet, state and non-state actors are working hard to rescind this progress.

Current federal civil rights laws prohibit sex discrimination by employers, schools, landlords, and health care providers, through Titles VII and IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act. However, a provision in Title IX, which allows for religious-based exemption, is often deployed in the service of justifying unequal treatment of LGBTI individuals.

This is the provision that lawyers from the ADF sought to utilize to justify firing Aimee Stephens. Their demand that the Supreme Court should determine whether gender identity should be included as “sex” has led to the Trump administration taking steps to re-establish the definition of sex under Title IX.

The current administration has begun dismantling the fruits of victories in the hard-fought battle for trans rights. In 2016, the Obama administration issued federal guidelines requiring that public schools allow transgender students to have access to bathrooms, classes, and locker rooms that match their gender identity. Yet last February, the Education Department confirmed that it is no longer investigating civil rights complaints from transgender students barred from using bathrooms that match their gender identity.

In 2015, Chinyere represented Ashley Diamond, a trans woman whose offense was burglary and was sent to a series of high-security prisons for violent male prisoners. She was sexually assaulted on a regular basis and was denied her hormone medication after making pleas to access it, which she, then in her mid-thirties, had been taking since adolescence. She was regularly harassed by prison guards and, after asking for hormone therapy, was held in solitary confinement. The process of deliberate defeminisation led to humiliation, emotional and physical trauma, and suicide attempts.

Chinyere calls what Ms. Diamond was subjected to the “discrimination to incarceration pipeline,” that targets transgender individuals and people of color. Societal exclusion of trans people results in increased vulnerability on the school to prison pipeline. These risk factors push already ostracized individuals to the margins of society, which might demand involvement in clandestine channels of income as a means to survival. This, in addition to preconceived prejudices in the judicial system, results in their disproportionate incarceration.

“We wrote up a 50-page complaint that outlines all the issues that this population faces behind bars. It led to her being released from prison 8 years early, to Georgia removing what had been a long-standing policy of denying gender related healthcare to prisoners who didn’t have a prescription, basically in their pocket when they come into prison, and it made gender-related healthcare available to a whole universe of prisoners.”

The political climate around gender and sexual equality is riddled with uncertainty, with previous protections being rolled back. As Professor Franke pointed out, trans people’s interests have historically been excluded from the gay rights movement, which invested in the marriage campaign as the centerpiece of its publicity work. A struggle with the trans rights movement, she suggested, has been the lack of public education and support from civil society: “The federal government showed up too early and too aggressively when the cultural work hadn’t been done yet.”

Just a few weeks ago, the Department of Justice filed a brief in the case of Aimee Stephens arguing the Title VII does not prohibit discrimination against transgender workers. While the DOJ did not ask that the Supreme Court hear the case, it sides with the funeral home on the definition of “sex.” “The allyship of the government is going to wax and wane, and that’s happening very dramatically right now,” explained Chinyere. “Trickle-down rights are not viable.”

Justifiably, advocates and trans people are scared that the judicial progress will soon retrogress. Federal advocacy will undoubtedly become more challenging, but that does not mean that social change will be on pause. Trial courts, district courts, and individual states will increasingly be the battleground sites for fighting for human rights. What matters, Chinyere argues, is showing up for trans people where there’s need, rather than racing to expand the law. The assumption of criminality, devaluation of trans lives, and iniquitous access to public services demand the wider public to unlearn the heterosexism that is unjustly ingrained in our social fabric.


By Laura Charney

LGBTQ Rights in a Global Perspective

On November 12, Pepe Julian Onziema spoke to attendees of an event focusing on “LGBTQ+ Rights in a Global Perspective,” moderated by Professor Katherine Franke of Columbia Law School and the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law. Onziema, who is from Uganda, is currently a Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia. He is an outspoken activist for LGBTQ Rights in Uganda and is the Programs Director of the non-profit organization “Sexual Minorites Uganda” (SMUG). His talk was centered around the history of LGBTQ persecution, as well as activism, in Uganda and the role that SMUG has played in making changes for acceptance and policy change.

Giving some initial background on Ugandan LGBTQ history, Onziema explained that Uganda was colonized by the British and since 1894 male same-sex relations have been illegal—for females, it was made illegal more recently, in 2000. Further entrenching the criminalization of LGBTQ identity, the Uganda Constitution was amended in 2005 to declare that “Marriage between persons of the same sex is prohibited” and is “against the order of nature.” Today, Uganda is still highly LGBTQ-phobic. It is important to note, said Onziema, that the homophobia in Uganda stems vastly from colonizing countries, not from pre-colonial conceptions of gender which did not present as homophobic.

SMUG was created in 2004 to challenge the discrimination and maltreatment of LGBTQ folks in Uganda. Onziema described that their entry point into the advocacy space was through HIV/AIDS discourses—SMUG hosted an international HIV/AIDS meeting about the stigma against same-sex relationships and HIV/AIDS. Since then, SMUG has expanded its agenda and developed a system based on four pillars: advocacy and law reform, research, capacity strengthening, and safety and protection. SMUG is “for the community, by the community,” explained Onziema. Everything they do is to “support Ugandans with crisis response and human rights-based programs.”

One form of advocacy that SMUG does, said Onziema, is litigation. Although the Ugandan Constitution clearly prohibits same-sex marriage, “in Uganda, as homophobic as it is, always in laws you can find gaps,” said Onziema. SMUG has participated in several victories for the improvement of rights for LGBTQ folks, including winning a court case in which two suspected lesbians had had their houses searched illegally by arguing that their rights to privacy and dignity had been violated. In a case in which Onziema himself was a plaintiff, a local tabloid had released a newspaper “outing” many suspected LGBTQ folks, including providing personal addresses and phone numbers to the public, under the headline “Hang Them, They are After Our Children.” SMUG filed a violation of the right to privacy and dignity of person and won that case as well. Yet, Onziema described that SMUG still has a ways to go to get legal recognition of LGBTQ persons— remarkably, even the organization itself has been denied registration because its name is “undesirable” to the Ugandan government.

That being said, Onziema and SMUG hold a unique connection to the United States and Columbia themselves—Professor Franke, who is also on the Board of Directors at the Center of Constitutional Rights, was counsel to SMUG in a Massachusetts federal court case Sexual Minorities Uganda v Scott Lively. Lively, a homophobic evangelical, had been travelling for years to Uganda preaching anti-LGBTQ hate rhetoric. Onziema described that Uganda is 86%  Christian and highly religious, making it a “soft spot” for religious evangelicals like Lively to sow homophobic seeds. SMUG filed in court under the Alien Torts Statute, which allows foreign victims of human rights abuses to seek civil remedies in court. Onziema said that SMUG won the case in 2017, and Lively lost on appeal again in 2018. Onziema has truly seen an impact now in Uganda—he said that US evangelicals have now stopped speaking publicly homophobic messages when they visit. “Fighting this was a really a plus for us,” he said. As well as its impact on SMUG and Uganda, Franke also explained how monumental the Lively decision was: for the first time, a US court held that sexual orientation-based persecution is actionable under the Alien Torts Statute. This is a landmark precedent.

SMUG and Uganda still face many challenges today with homophobia not only within state law but also in state and police action. At Ugandan Pride 2016, said Onziema, 16 people, himself included, were rounded up and arrested while the police surrounded the event carrying AK47s and batons. He was beaten to the point where he lost hearing in his left ear. LGBTQ people are “just trying to be their authentic selves,” he said, “and in doing that they fall into the hands of the law that criminalizes that.” On more nuanced levels, LGBTQ folks face family rejection, eviction, expulsion from schools, lack of employment, and a lack of access to the justice system. SMUG works with the community with its “Know Your Rights” Project that teaches people about the Ugandan Bill of Rights and encourages people to get reparations where they are due. “Knowing our rights and knowing that we can actually go to court is important,” said Onziema. “We are trying to challenge the very laws that criminalize our existence.”

Other projects that SMUG works on are training to health service providers for the queer community, running counselling at their own SMUG clinic, creating a hotline for psycho-social support with their “see the invisible” campaign, and keeping in contact with people in the community constantly. Onziema described that because SMIG began as an HIV/AIDS advocacy organization, much of the financial support benefits men who have sex with men, gay men, and trans women, but can leave out other queer identities such as lesbians, trans men, and women who have sex with women. In HIV studies, he said, there is very little data on transmission other than men with men—this leads to some tension in that “as a trans man, I struggle to keep receiving money that is only catering to a smaller group.” Yet, this will not be the agenda forever said Onziema. SMUG hopes to only grow in its efforts.

Onziema gave his audience several ways to support SMUG: solidarity, working in the organization, urging our leaders to keep LGBTQ rights on the agenda, and getting media coverage of our stories. Onziema and SMUG are fighting tirelessly for rights for all sexual orientations in Uganda, truly giving us LGBTQ rights in a global perspective. To broaden your perspective even more, visit sexualminoritiesuganda.com to learn, seetheinvisible.ug to campaign, and smuginternational.org to donate.


By Rowena Kosher

Righting Victim Participation in Transitional Justice

On Wednesday, November 14, 2018, Dr. Inga Winkler, a prominent figure in the human rights community at Columbia, began the event “Righting Victim Participation in Transitional Justice” by introducing Tine Destrooper.

Destrooper is the director of the Flemish Peace Institute and an associate professor at Ghent University. Previously, she has been the managing director of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU’s School of Law and a fellow at the Wissenschaft-Kolleg, Berlin.

The event’s focus: a new research project, focused on victim participation in transitional justice which is set to begin next year, and to be completed in five years. The project was created due to the ever-growing influence of transitional justice around the world. Effectively, this greater influence has engendered a rapid implementation of transitional justice frameworks. Such a rapid implementation can oftentimes lead to problems such as uniformity which fails to recognize country-specific conditions.

To set the stage, Destrooper made sure that everyone in the audience understood the meaning of transitional justice. “Transitional justice, in a general sense, is justice in times of transition” she explained. Transitional justice typically is understood to have four pillars. They are criminal justice, truth commissions (which establish a record), reparations (monetary or symbolic), and institutional reform. Destrooper highlighted that this structure has largely focused on “looking at the world in a forward way, which limits how much we are delving into the past.”

Yet, transitional justice makes us think profoundly on how we define punishment and its alternatives. It is a system that has been implemented, as Destrooper shared, to create the infrastructure of liberal state-building.  It aids in setting policies such as rule of law, democratization, among others. Effectively, this puts the international community in a special place as having international observers in justice processes is crucial to its enforcement.

Destrooper then began to problematize one of the pillars of transitional justice – truth commissions. While truth commissions were started largely in Central and South America, their methodology is now being applied by others, such as the Aboriginal communities in Australia. Her main criticism centered on the increased expectations that we now associate with truth commissions, and transitional justice at large, yet the little to no change that has been implemented to our methodology and resources. Regarding this, Destrooper reflected that “post-authoritarian states in Buenos Aires where the root of atrocities lies in an overbearing want of power by leaders cannot be compared to South Sudan or Yemen whose root problem is social chaos.” It has created a sense of uniformity in the face of institutionalization.

To elaborate further, Destrooper spoke about another pillar – criminal justice. This pillar usually takes the shape of legal trials which condemns the actions of individuals who enact the atrocities in question. However, Destrooper not only recognized the legal importance of these trials, but also the aspect of truth-setting. Trials host instances of public record, which can have strong rhetorical power.

One of the main problems, which Destrooper highlighted, was the way in which we understand which rights we think transitional justice can apply to. Though historically, civil and political rights have been perceived as closer to core ideals and understandings that make up the foundation of international law and thus merit prosecution, we fail to recognize that economic, social, and cultural rights have just as much validity in these processes of justice building.

One of the tensions which Destrooper noted was a prevalence of civil and political rights in the discourse of human rights amongst NGOs and other human rights bodies, yet local actors and leaders seem to advocate more strongly for economic, social, and cultural rights in their communities. If we want to ensure a more stable and just society, we need to have local actors more aware of the systems. Thus, the participation of victims in the process is important as it ensures ownership and sustainability, legitimacy and responsiveness, and empowerment within communities.

However, these victim-centered approaches can be problematic in certain regards. They are aspirational and do not always take the practical elements of what life is like for victims on the ground. This is often a criticism of prominent human rights scholars – that transitional justice has been focused too heavily on the reconciliation processes and on “moving forward” that it does not allow for victims to process their trauma.

This is where Destrooper’s project can make profound differences in the human rights world. Her project proposes three main aspects – mapping, impact, and framework. Under mapping, Destrooper proposes to recognize the scope, role, finality, and evolution of transitional justice and answering the question of what has been done? Under impact, Destrooper would focus on the effect that transitional justice has had, how it factors in context, and which causal mechanisms were utilized. These would be measured using four case studies in the following countries- Cambodia, Guatemala, Tunisia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Under the framework, Destrooper’s team would assess the different impact on different kinds of victims in different contexts.

Because rhetoric in discourses is crucial to understanding, Destrooper wants to highlight the power and effect of narratives and how people make sense of their experiences with atrocities. Narratives further shape people’s ideas of accountability.

Destrooper understood that there will be obstacles that she is going to face in her research. One of them being the language barriers, which she will try to overcome by working with local researchers and translators who have a solid understanding of the realities of the four countries of the case studies. To further access reports in different languages, Destrooper is working with coders to develop a server that can include all of the necessary reports in their native language she will need to accurately access information.

Participation of victims is something that needs to be profoundly understood, which is precisely the goal of Destrooper’s project research proposal. She states that she is not for or against victim participation in transitional justice, but wants to investigate more of the dynamics and mechanisms used and how they could be improved in the future. With the results of the research, Destrooper’s goals are to give back to the localities which are affected by the research in a way that is locally-relevant and meaningful.

This research has the capacity to be incredibly impactful and meaningful for both human rights institutions and local actors, as it would reveal where we can improve in our mechanisms to ensure that justice is truly met in periods of transition.


By Jalileh Garcia

Understanding Gender, Migration, and Transnational Advocacy: A Talk with Chaumtoli Huq

What is the connection between gender and migration? Between the garment industries in Bangladesh and the United States? And what advocacy strategies can we learn from these connections? These were some of the questions addressed by Chaumtoli Huq on Monday, November 5 in her talk on “Gender and Migration: The Front Lines of Gender Justice,” facilitated by Professor Katherine Franke of the Law School and the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia. This discussion was part of a series of talks in Professor Franke’s Law class “Gender Justice” this semester.

Chaumtoli Huq is an Associate Professor of Law at the CUNY Law School and the founder of non-profit organization Law at the Margins. Huq is a self-proclaimed “social justice lawyer,” interested in working not only top-down from elite institutions and courts to gain victories for clients and communities, but more importantly in working in and through the communities, she assists, taking the lead from those who would be most impacted by a decision. Much of her work focuses on South Asia (especially Bangladesh) and the United States, including how the two countries are intrinsically connected.

Beginning her talk on gender and migration, Huq stressed the need for a non-linear view of migration. Typically, she said, we think of migration as the movement of a person from one state to another, but we fail to recognize the other versions and nuances important to the concept of migration such as urban/rural, seasonal, within and across communities. If we only think of migration linearly, she stated, we miss the informal networks in which migration occurs, and importantly we don’t see the role that the state plays as a conduit for capitalism. Describing her work as s transnational, Huq writes: “We have to look past the local and the global and the here and the there. We have to look at the lives of the people we are looking at.”  Huq, adds, however, that we must also see the ways in which migration and immigration themselves are gendered.

Huq demonstrated these connections by discussing the development of the garment industry in 2000 that happened almost simultaneously in Bangladesh and in the United States. In Bangladesh, said Huq, 80% of the workforce in the garment industry is women. When the industry began, she said, there was a belief that the only way to compete in the global market was through cheap labor—synonymous, she said, with gendered labor. Women were actively recruited into the garment industry, demonstrating the role of the state and economy in structuring a gendered workforce “outwards and into the garment industry.” Huq explained that approximately $25 Billion is riding on the gendered labor in the garment industry…and that the goal is to double this, primarily by extracting cheap labor from a predominantly female workforce. In Bangladesh, says Huq, to enter the industrial workforce, women have also been removed from rural areas to urban (internal migration); another $14 Million revenue comes from migrant domestic workers.

At the same time these changes in gendered labor were occurring in Bangladesh in the 2000s, NYC was developing an equally large garment industry. Changes in immigration policies at the time produced an incentive for many Bangladeshi low wage workers to immigrate to the United States and enter into low wage jobs. Transnational migration evolved into internal migration in the States, as well. Huq pointed out that there are several thriving Bangladeshi communities in Buffalo (where construction jobs were available), the Hudson Valley (cheap factory labor), and Detroit which all originated from workers moving from NYC outwards.

What these patterns show, said Huq, is that economic pushes and pulls are important to understand in order to see immigration’s gendered consequences. Domestic work was and still is immensely popular among migrants from South Asia. But it is also historically low paid, low benefit, gendered labor. Following 9/11 and the US War on Terror, Muslim women faced new challenges. Often, she said, women were left behind while Muslim men tended to be deported, forcing them into a position of needing to enter the workforce for the first time. Many women entered domestic low wage jobs in the informal economy.

Huq currently works with many Bangladeshi and South Asian women who are part of this economy towards developing empowering female movements, including unions, sewing co-ops, and other labor organizing in the Bangladeshi NYC diaspora. One organization she worked with, Andolan, has helped advocate for rights for migrant and domestic women workers. Importantly, Huq stressed that these movements can draw from the interconnectedness of migration and gender. “If they are interconnected processes,” she said, “then it really doesn’t matter whether you’re here or there; your advocacy can take place where you’re at.” Further, there are multiple points in which our advocacy and activism can focus on communities we are trying to serve.

This is also what Huq does in her organization, Law at the Margins, which is an online law and social media advocacy group focused on exploring narratives of social justice in blogs, webinars, and online content. Writers from impacted communities share their perspectives, creating a valuable hub for content for social change activists to access. This perspective of focusing on the voices of the impacted helps to align Huq’s law practice with her values. When asked about how she reconciles the fact that often lawyering is elites speaking to elites for elite victories in court, Huq responded that she prioritizes  working with community-based organizations. “My job is to not have a job,” she replied. “Strong people don’t need leaders…it’s important to be guided by folks.” Top-down lawyering can be valuable, of course, but it has to be working in tandem with community-based groups, she explained

Many  of Huq’s suggestions for advocacy involve asking questions such as what voices are here? And who needs to be in the room? As she points out in relation to advocacy for Bangladeshi garment workers, “I’m not a garment worker.” This is why our activism has to be local.

Huq closed her talk by proclaiming that transnational advocacy also means avoiding US-centricity, listening more to those affected, keeping away from neocolonial relationships, and changing the way we arrive at our policies. The garment industry is only one way in which gender and migration are connected, as with our advocacy. A quote that Huq shared in her presentation by South Asian Activist Kazi Fouzia aptly demonstrates this: “We always remember that we are part of a global chain. If we do not support one another, we will not be able to bring about social change.”


By Rowena Kosher

P.C. Chang and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

On October 24, 2018, United Nations Special Rapporteur in the field of Cultural Rights, Professor Karima Bennoune joined Professor Hans Ingvar Roth to celebrate his new book P.C. Chang and The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, marking the 70th anniversary of the UDHR. Roth has dedicated over four years to create the first intellectual biography of Peng Chun Chang, a “multifaceted talent and one of the most important drafters of the UDHR.” Chang is a Columbia University alumni and Roth acknowledged that “we are at Columbia University, where Chang studied, and this year is the 70th anniversary of the UDHR, and I think never before has it been more important to celebrate this great book in history.” Event moderator Professor Andrew Nathan introduced both speakers to a full room of fifty like-minded academics.  

With only thirty minutes, Roth delivered an exceptional speech on the role of P.C. Chang in drafting the UDHR and Chang’s influence, making it a truly intercultural document. At the beginning of his speech, Roth acknowledged several threats to human rights culture but stated that “we should all remember the enormous achievement of the drafters and those that were involved with the creation of the UDHR. They had a small opportunity… but they managed to carve out a fantastic document. One of the greatest documents of history.” In a time when human rights are in danger, Roth believes that the UDHR is imperative because “all human beings are created equal and should be seen with caution and reason, and this was very important to justify in writing.”

Evidently, in order to understand the importance of the UDHR today, it is imperative to commemorate and recognize the drafters that created this critical document. Focusing on Chang, in particular, Roth argued that Chang was one of the most important drafters of the UDHR. Chang was more or less present during the whole political process, where he influenced the overall character of the UDHR, including key articles and concepts, the structure, literary style and ideas about justification and implementation of the document. Notably, Chinese-born Chang recognized the importance of culture, where he “stressed that this document was an offspring of several ethnic traditions around the world.” By going against the myth that the UDHR is a purely Western document, Roth stated that “[the UDHR] wasn’t just a Western liberal document. Chang came from China and was trying to find counterparts to human rights in Confucian philosophy, for example.”

In addition, to celebrate Roth’s new book, Professor Bennoune discussed her report “Universality, Cultural Diversity and Cultural Rights,” which outlined the mutually reinforcing principles of universality and cultural diversity as well as an important annex towards the global history of the UDHR. To begin, Bennoune stated, “[my report] intersects very nicely with Professor Roth’s important book, and I really thank him for writing this book because it helps us excavate the history of human rights and the UDHR – the history that we don’t tell often enough.” Bennoune believes that the UDHR plays a critical role in creating the legal grounding of universality: “Universality is the idea that there is no such thing as a second-class human being. There is no such thing as a relative human being.” It is, like Roth argued, that human beings have equal inherent human rights simply by virtue of being human. However, the idea of universality is being attacked by politics, non-state actors and academia by endorsing the idea of cultural relativism. As the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights,  Bennoune also was equipped to make statements regarding the difference between cultural rights and cultural relativism. “Cultural rights, which are very positive and part of human rights; cultural diversity, which is positive for human rights; and cultural relativism, which is a very different concept, which rather than amplifies rights, seeks to diminish them and take them away in the name of culture,” she said.

In order to address the overwhelming attacks to universality and cultural diversity, Bennoune believes that “we need to lay a foundational renewal of universality… going back and understanding where this concept came from and who were the people who helped codify it and why they thought it was important for us…people from various cultures and religions were involved in the writing of this text and it voiced a concern for cultural belonging and the importance of culture for the wellbeing of the individual person and was a product of intercultural strategies and dialogue.”

Throughout the event, one of Roth’s presumed goals was to make Chang and other UDHR drafters “household names.” Evidently, Roth’s in-depth intellectual biography on P.C. Chang was a positive step towards educating the public on the UDHR and making P.C. Chang an important figure in the human rights discourse.

For more information on Professor Roth’s book P.C. Chang and The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, click here. To learn more about Professor Bennoune’s report on “Universality, cultural diversity and cultural rights,” visit her on Twitter @UNSRCulture.


By Juana Lee

When Political Transitions Work: Reconciliation as Interdependence

South Africa’s transition from apartheid to multi-racial democracy and subsequent Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) are often held up as a gold standard to be replicated by countries emerging for civil war or dictatorship. While recognizing the importance of elections, forgiveness, and truth, Fanie du Toit, Executive Director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town, South Africa, and Virginie Ladisch, head of the Children and Youth program at the International Center for Transitional Justice, sought to challenge audience members to complicate our narrative of the political transition and reconciliation in South Africa and why and how it has and hasn’t worked.

In the popular imagination South Africa’s racially segregationist apartheid regime was brought to an end by democratic elections in 1994. Following the seemingly superhuman leadership of Nelson Mandela, South Africans forgave each other for the crimes of the past and agreed to build a future together. Ever since the TRC’s mandate ended in 1998 other countries transitioning from civil war or dictatorship to liberal democracy have looked to the South African model.

Complicating this narrative is the focus of du Toit’s new book, “When Political Transitions Work,” which is based on extensive interviews with the people at the highest levels of South African politics during the transition, thousands of pages of documents from the era, and du Toit’s scholarly pursuits and substantial practical experience with transitional justice across Africa and the Middle East. Du Toit emphasizes the importance of relationships in political transitions, and the centrality of the recognition of “pervasive, unavoidable interdependence” as a foundational building block of reconciliation. He sheds light on the often-forgotten institutions that guided South Africa through the negotiations to end apartheid, the successes and failures of the TRC, and the failure to deliver economic justice. Ultimately, he persuasively argues, transitions will only work when participants acknowledge their interdependence.

The recognition of interdependence in South Africa did not originate in forgiveness says du Toit, though this was important later, but instead from hard-edged realistic calculations in all camps. As the country tottered on the brink of civil war in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Mandela and his counterpart F.W. de Klerk realized the only future was a shared one. South Africa would not survive otherwise. “We reconcile not because we choose to, we reconcile because we have to,” said Mr Du Toit, “Reconciliation is not for the dreamers or romantics, it’s for the realists.”

While Mandela and De Klerk negotiated in the early 1990s, crucial and often-forgotten new institutions were created which became spaces for inclusivity and fairness. The National Peace Accord, a body which eventually included civic, business, religious, and political leaders, was a non-partisan venue for politicians to denounce political violence and discuss what a transition might look like. In every region of the country the NPA created local bodies and trained of local peacemakers to promote trust and reconciliation, mediate conflicts, facilitate agreements on the operation of local public political events, and liaise with the local police and judiciary. It brought the transition and reconciliation to local communities and created space where a new way of dealing with conflict could develop leading up to the 1994 election. The NPA was also beginning to address the socio-economic violence caused by apartheid, a crucial issue for the millions of Black South Africans denied opportunity because of their skin. The NPA, according to du Toit, still had a lot of offer when it was dissolved after the 1994 elections.

Outside South Africa the TRC is probably the most known, and replicated, part of South Africa’s transition. Inside the country, it’s arguably the most contentions. Between 1996 and 1998 the country sat on the edge of it’s seat as victims and perpetrators of political violence gave emotional public testimony on what they had endured or committed. At the end, the commission released a list of recommendations, including the redistribution some of the ill-gotten economic wealth created during apartheid. These recommendations were by and large swept under the rug after South Africa embraced the free market consensus as espoused by western financial institutions in the late 1990s.

Du Toit has a more positive outlook on the TRC than many of his fellow South Africans – in “When Political Transitions Work” he points out that the TRC helped acknowledge and restore the dignity of victims, established accountability, and produced a public record of violations to act as a permanent reminder – no mean feat considering South Africa’s particularly tortured history. While many White South Africans did not necessarily want to hear victim’s testimony, they couldn’t ignore it, and eventually it forced White South Africa to at least acknowledge what happened under the Apartheid regime. Du Toit’s criticism of the TRC concentrates on the failure of the government to follow through on ameliorating the socio-economic violence caused by apartheid.

As the 1990s drew to a close, the recognition of mutual interdependence began to fade. The abandonment of the NPA and other structures that guided South Africa through the negotiations eliminated a neutral space where political, business and civic interests from all corners of South Africa could meet and discuss how to create a peaceful and just society. By neglecting to address the socio-economic violence of apartheid, racialized wealth disparities have persisted, driving communities further apart and creating the impression of two different South Africas.

While outsiders often point to South Africa’s transition as a stunning success, within the country the perception is far more mixed. Recalling her first visit to South Africa in 2000, Ladisch shared that at the time “reconciliation” was considered a bad word to many. Over the last two decades since the TRC undertook its mandate, the word “reconciliation” has come to mean different things to different people at different times. At times it’s seemed like the South African reconciliation failed, at other times the process seems to be going well. At salient moments, like the death of Nelson Mandela in 2013, South Africans engage in a new round of collective soul searching, and develop a new outlook on reconciliation, based as much on past experience as the contemporary political climate.

Recognizing that South Africa has become an example to many other countries trying to reconcile after years of conflict, Ladisch warned against a “copy-paste” prescriptive approach to transitional justice. “There is no recipe to transitional justice, just different approaches,” she said. South Africa arrived at reconciliation through a realization of interdependence. The political transition was guided and shaped by uniquely created inclusive and fair institutions which mirrored the prior realization. Truth telling was valuable, but to some, the failure to deliver socio-economic justice, has poisoned the word reconciliation. Instead of copy-pasting a South African-style TRC, countries coming out of conflict or dictatorship would do better to build their own fair and inclusive institutions – whether that be a truth commission, reparations bodies, or a new constitution – which reflect the fundamental principle of reconciliation as interdependence.  


By James Courtright

New Zealand’s Push for Sustainable Development

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s Push for Sustainable Development

The International Conference on Sustainable Development provided a forum for academia, government, civil society, UN agencies and the private sector to come together to share discussion on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This year, from September 26 to 28 2018, the Conference took place on multiple campuses around the world, making it a truly global event.

On the second day of the 6th annual International Conference on Sustainable Development, Columbia University had the privilege of hearing Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand speak on the SDGs.

Professor Jeffrey Sachs, the Director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, introduced Prime Minister Ardern to roaring applause in Alfred Lerner Hall.

To begin her speech, Ardern discussed injustice and the impact of politics around the world. Ardern says, “if there is one thing we hate, it is injustice. We try to do it right by one another. Perhaps it comes from being a thousand miles from anywhere, isolated and completely reliant on one another… but we are acutely aware of the impact we have on the world and the rest of the world has on us.” As a politician, Ardern says that “politics has an increasing duty, but values do not. Values have always been my starting point. I signed up for a political party when I was 17 years old, not because I was looking for a career, but perhaps, naively, I wanted to change the world.”

As one of the youngest world leaders, Ardern’s strive towards social justice, environmentalism and prosperity is unique. Although New Zealand is redefining success related to the sustainability, Ardern agrees that “SDGs haven’t been treated as a given. Even New Zealand has a long way to go.” Nevertheless, she points out New Zealand is establishing new measures of national achievement that goes beyond growth. “We have, for instance, created a tool called the “living standards framework” that puts the notions of sustainable, intergenerational wellbeing in the seat of different decision-making processes we have,” Ardern said. “Our statistics department, at the moment, is working on an ambitious project called “social indicators within New Zealand” that will help create a set of indicators across dimensions that include current picture models of New Zealand: economic, cultural, social and environmental. This will ultimately help us monitor our delivery of the SDGs.”

Ending her speech on a high note, Ardern ties sustainable development, social justice and politics, saying that “as politicians, we all have choices in how we respond. We can work hard, or we can build a response, our choice in New Zealand is action.”

After Ardern’s inspirational speech, Sachs led a 15-minute question panel related to New Zealand’s difficult agricultural emissions, climate change, migration, the US-China trade war, development aid, the happiness index and youth.

Difficult Agricultural Emissions

Nearly half of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions comes from agriculture. Entering the first question, Sach asks Ardern about New Zealand’s solution for agricultural emissions. “It is difficult for us on the agricultural side. Our emissions profile is forty eight percent agricultural emissions. That makes us really unique – but one of the points that I am trying to make is that we’ve been doing research with the Global Research Alliance to do what we can to try and literally alter the way we farm to reduce our emissions profile, ” Ardern says, “we all have to address this challenge because it comes at a risk to our food insecurity as well.”

Climate Change

Next, Sachs begins the climate change discussion with Australia’s struggle with fossil fuel emissions. He then asks what advice New Zealand has for Australia. Confidently, Ardern says that “we can all agree about the problem that [climate change] presents, but there are huge interests in maintaining the status quo – that are hard to shift. We recently announced that we will not be issuing offshore oil and gas exploration permits in New Zealand. Those are tough calls, those are industries and jobs. We have a duty of care to those people who have relied on those industries and jobs. So, I understand what Australia is confronting and what others are confronting, but we have a duty as well.”

Identity Politics and Migration

Moving on, Sachs discusses identity politics and migration in New Zealand. In a 2013 consensus, there were approximately 600,000 Indigenous people identifying as Māori in New Zealand, making up roughly fifteen percent of the national population. Sach asks if Ardern could reflect on New Zealand’s special learning about [Indigenous culture]. “Indigenous New Zealand – that relationship dictates that way we look as a government and it is incredibly important to us and it makes us relatively unique… But, I also wanted to discuss the issues of migration. I spoke briefly about the issues of globalization… what I see around the world is a growing sense of insecurity. Whether its financial insecurity, it seems that you are not guaranteed a roof over your head, a stable job or a stable income,” Ardern says, “as progressives, we need to respond to that. And the way progressives respond is we need to be inclusive and we need to offer decent wages and conditions. This needs to apply to issues of migration… The reforms we go through is very much focused on fixing [this]….”

US – China Trade War

On foreign policy, Sachs says that “maybe the biggest divide, politically, is the US trade war on China what should be done about this?” Ardern says that “we should stick to rules, and regardless to whose engaged, rely on predictability, order and rules… we need to recognize our responsibility we have to each other, not just to our people, but to each other as well. Trade wars benefit no one, and they particularly punish our smaller nations with a distinct lack of power. … We base our power on the size of our economies and the size of population and it is really a rejection of multilateralism and I push back on that…”

Lack of Development Aid

According to the World’s Happiness Report, New Zealand ranks #8 in the world. Sachs stated that “New Zealand is on course to achieving all 17 SDGs, which is extremely exciting and one of the happiest places in the world.” However, after much applause, Sachs wanted to critic New Zealand on their lack of development aid, indicating that it was “quite low… something like .2 of one percent.” According to the SDGs, the target for New Zealand’s development aid is 0.7. To counter, Ardern says “in our last budget, we recognized that we had to boost our aid and we need to do our best – so we increased our aid by 700 million dollars…”

From 2015 – 2018, New Zealand’s aid budget is said to include $1B in the Pacific, $600M in economic development and $200M in ASEAN. In addition, issues such as environment, climate change, gender equality, women’s empowerment and human rights issues will be addressed in the aid provided. According to New Zealand’s aid program, “this will help deliver sustainable, inclusive outcomes.”

To Young Women Around the World

Lastly, at 38, Ardern is New Zealand’s youngest ever woman leader. Evidently, she poses as an inspiration and role model to youth around the world. When speaking to, specifically, young women around the world, Ardern says “I do think that globally, we need to make politics a more attractive place to be – we need to make it a more attractive choice. But beyond that, I have noticed, that at least in my country, when I talk to young women about their aspirations, even at a young age, I see that they are opting out. I often make the assumption that it comes down to confidence. I make that assumption because I was exactly the same… There is a tendency for young women to say that you don’t have everything that it takes – to have a tiny little seed of doubt… Yes, we have a huge amount of work to do – we need to make our workplace more flexible, [create] greater options and opportunities to address our conscience minds. Yes, we must do all of that, but we also have to boost our women’s confidence and support them into those roles too – and help them overcome those tiny seeds of doubt because if we don’t, we will be more the poorer.”

The International Conference on Sustainable Development has intersected the SDGs with issues related to migration, human rights, foreign policy and environmentalism. Prime Minister Ardern and New Zealand’s effort to meet the SDGs is a breath of fresh air, challenging the political atmosphere in the U.S. today.

For information on the International Conference on Sustainable Development, check out ICSD’s website.


By Juana Lee

Human Rights Internship Panel

On October 11, graduate and undergraduate students interested in internships related to Human Rights gathered at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights to hear four students speak about their summer internship experiences. The panelists brought different advice from their internship experiences both abroad and in the United States on how to identify the right position, going about the interview process, and learning on the job. They all stressed the importance of staying flexible, and using the internship experience to explore interests cultivated in the classroom in the field.

Tanya Sattar is in her second year of her Masters of Arts in Human Rights Studies at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. She spent her summer in New York and London with Value for Women, a UK based organization that identifies and tests new solutions for women’s empowerment and gender and social inclusion with income generating activities. Tanya helped produce gender market assessments and ecosystem mapping of impact investing sectors in South & South East Asia. She spoke about the benefits of interning at a small organization of 20 people and how she got to meet and work with the founders of the organization.

Aswathi Kizhekalam Puthenveettil is in the second year of a Masters of International Affairs program at the School for International and Policy Affairs, where her concentration is Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy. Through ISHR’s Student Volunteer Program, she spent her summer in Myanmar working with the Peace and Development Initiative (Kintha) helping establish an internal monitoring and evaluation (M&E) system, training an M&E officer, writing and editing reports and grant proposals, designing new programs, and editing content for their soon-to-be-released website. Aswathi reminded the audience of the importance of self-care. Without looking after yourself, she said, you’re not going to be able to be a productive member of a team or realize your full potential.

Oscar Bennett Kohat is a pre-med student majoring in Human Rights. This summer, his second with Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center in New York City, he served as a clinical research intern working on the largest and longest clinical trial on adolescent HPV. He spoke to the audience about the importance of investing in professional relationships with people at your internship, and how those relationships can help in unexpected ways down the line.

Sebastian Torero joins the Columbia community majoring in Human Rights after two years at Sciences Po in France. He spent his summer with Brooklyn Defenders Services in New York City as an investigative assistant intern where he helped criminal defense attorney’s gather facts to build theories for their cases. He spoke about the importance of learning beyond the classroom and how dealing with the application of the law is rarely as clear and concise as it might seem on paper.

After a brief presentation the panelists took questions from the audience. When asked whether their experiences shifted their career goals, they all generally agreed that this past summer helped them solidify their interests and career goals. Towards the end of the session, one student asked about navigating the existential concerns of trying to make this world a better place, and the potential frustrations inherent in not harvesting the fruits of their labor. The panelists thoughtfully reflected that while they did not leave the places they interned having created  monumental change, they felt by helping an organization focused on making the world a better place, they had contributed to the overall goal, and in the process, learned more about how they can best serve humanity.


By James Courtright 

As Spanish Government Turns a New Page, a Chance to Lead EU on Migration

As Spanish Government Turns a New Page, a Chance to Lead EU on Migration

Pedro Sanchez is the new Prime Minister of Spain after a stunning no-confidence vote. The refugee crisis deepens. The people want reform. Spain’s potential as a future EU trailblazer on migration policy rests in his hands.

By Madison Chapman

Street art depicting refugees at La Tabacalera in Embajadores, another diverse and artistic migrant neighborhood in Madrid adjacent to Lavapiés. Photo: Madison Chapman

Part I

 Madrid, Spain—Ndiogou spends the hottest part of the day—when many Spanish people take a siesta— with a group of fellow Senegalese men near the main plaza of Lavapiés, a lively migrant neighborhood in Madrid. When I met him one humid March afternoon, he was eager to chat, casually leaning on the wall of one of many nearby Lycra Mobile shops. Surrounded by the slight waft of tapas, it is hard to imagine that Ndiogou has had a tough life in Spain. Yet he spent his first decade in the country unable to obtain official paperwork—and with it, public assistance. His lack of work authorization forced him to live on a street in Lavapiés, where he both slept and slowly learned Spanish from passerby. He cracked a weary grin as he shared his integration experience, noting that not much had changed. But he continued to hold out hope that it would soon.

Since March, Spain has indeed changed. On June 2, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez of the opposition Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party (PSOE) was sworn in after a no-confidence vote ousted Partido Popular (PP) Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in May. Soon thereafter, Madrid accepted a migrant boat off the coast of Valencia, filled with 629 people from mainly Sub-Saharan Africa, after Italy turned the vessel away. The move attracted global attention and was cheered as a long-awaited political shift, given the previous dismal migrant intake in Spain—despite domestic public support for increased refugee assistance. Yet to make sustained progress toward a more inclusive migration policy, Sanchez has work ahead of him. Reforming the broken Spanish migration system will require not only additional refugee intake but the overhaul of a backlogged and inefficient asylum solicitation system—known as the acogida system. Just as Spain must no longer sideline migration policy, it must also create a more efficient platform for dignified asylum assistance, with broad civil society support.

Ndiogou is a migrant from Senegal who arrived in Spain over a decade ago. For the majority of that time, he lived on the street in Lavapiés as he attempted to secure work authorization and access to public benefits. Photo: Madison Chapman

Ndiogou is not alone, and his journey is significant as Spain grows as a hub for asylum-seeking migrants from Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. Yet the historical relationship between Spain and the rest of the EU on migration has been a fraught one. In 2015, former PM Rajoy called for an EU-wide approach to migration, stating that “Spain will not refuse the right to asylum to those entitled to it.” Yet he refused to commit to accepting more than 2,739 refugees or expand this quota, which was already far below that of Germany and France, without additional funding from the EU. As a result, Rajoy faced swift public pressure and criticism from the Spanish Catholic Church. Some have associated Rajoy’s hesitant border policy with fear of overwhelming public services and a slowly recovering economy after a harsh period of austerity and the most severe economic crisis in Spanish history.

Who Comes, Who Stays—Migration Politics

Graphs representing asylum applications received by Spain, with data from the Spanish Refugee Commission. Asylum applications have increased significantly in the last two years, especially from Venezuelans. Graph: A. Hernandez, El Mundo Gráficos

Within the first six months of 2016, Spain had only accepted 18 refugees—primarily from Eritrea—though it pledged to integrate over 16,000 in September of the same year. According to the Spanish Refugee Commission (CEAR), migration to Spain then skyrocketed to a historic high of 15,755 petitions for asylum at the end of 2016, primarily from Venezuelans, Ukrainians, Syrians, and Algerians. This number created an all-time record for Spain, up 874 from 2015. Yet this still constituted only 1% of total people who requested refugee assistance in the EU. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) notes that between January and August of 2017, over 11,000 migrants attempted to enter Spain by sea– a number it forecasted would grow and eventually surpass even migration to Greece. In addition, the number of attempted coastal arrivals to Spain tripled in 2016, resulting in over 3,000 attempted arrivals and over 50 deaths. The sudden and extreme influx of migrants to Spain by sea left the Rajoy government reeling, unable to effectively respond to new arrivals. Migration to Spain increased from Venezuela and Central America, though only six refugees from Venezuela were accepted between 2012 and 2016—leading popular Spanish newspaper El País to boldly claim that “Spain Does Not Want Venezuelan Refugees.” Meanwhile, Spain began to detain more migrants in North Africa, as migrant men attempted to cross the imposing barbed-wire fence between Morocco and the North African Spanish city of Melilla, a Spanish enclave. With increased arrivals to North Africa came tent cities outside of Melilla and Ceuta, a clamp down on access to ports of entry, and human rights violations that invited widespread international criticism. The urgency of migration reform has arguably never been more palpable and intense.

Why Does Spain Matter? Spain’s Acogida Challenge

 Spain enjoys a strategic location straddling Europe and Africa, which has also posed a unique challenge to its asylum intake and evaluation system. Though more individuals were granted some form of protection in Spain in 2016 than ever before, very few were granted refugee status. Of the 6,855 people who were permitted to stay, only 355 (or 3.4%) received refugee status and 6,500 were given subsidiary protection.. Though migrants seek asylum from other concerning conflicts, political pressure has impacted who stays and who is denied asylum in Spain. The growing rejection of people from Venezuela, who continue to constitute the greatest individual group of those seeking asylum in Spain, is compounded by this issue. Of 12,818 applications pending at the close of 2017, only 16 were granted refugee status and 98.9% rejected.

Sufian is an economic migrant from Bangladesh. He has praised the services available to him as an economic migrant, including language classes and health services. His primary concern is that within Lavapiés, people do not need to learn about Spanish culture or vice versa, because there are so many migrants. But he noted that when he leaves the barrio, or neighborhood, there is somewhat less understanding. Photo: Madison Chapman

The central issues facing the Spanish acogida system are wait times and restrictions on work permits and public assistance that migrants face upon arrival. While municipal governments have taken a more flexible approach to migration, with Madrid even hanging a banner emblazoned with “Refugees Welcome” over the landmark Palacio de Cibeles, the central government has taken a stricter stance. In total, the asylum application process may take up to 3 years. First, an individual submits an asylum application, which may be accepted or denied at the end of an often backlogged, months-long waiting process. During this time, the state does not provide holistic public services or benefits to migrants. In fact, according to William, a staff member at ONG Rescate, “the state does what it can with the acogidas… but then leaves the [rest] to NGOs so that it complies” with international obligations. If the asylum application is accepted, a temporary acogida phase begins, in which some government support arrives. Yet many migrants seek the assistance of municipal governments or civil society, which manage the majority of asylum centers in Spain. Amongst the most active in Spain are Caritas, Accem, CEAR, ONG Rescate, the Spanish Red Cross, and UNHCR, as well as a variety of faith-based organizations such as Protestant Social Action. As told by Juan, a food artisan from Madrid, “madrileños [people from Madrid] are very conscious and want to help… [but] everything is politics with the acogidas, [and] refugees don’t vote so politicians just don’t care.”

Organizations like ONG Rescate and CEAR provide temporary housing, legal and social services, resume and job support, psychological services, and language training. They also permit clients clothing, health services, a small monthly stipend to cover food. However, migrants seeking asylum cannot work during this time, leaving them totally dependent on outside assistance while they await a legal decision. Because the application waitlist is so backlogged—El País recently reported that 41% of people who have applied for asylum since 2010 are still waiting, or 20,000 people—this 6-month process can take up to a year or longer in deemed non-vulnerable cases. It is particularly difficult for groups like ONG Rescate, which works primarily with LGBTQI+ people and women seeking asylum for gender motives. Any NGO must specify their acogida and integration agenda to the individual profiles, and given the extreme vulnerability of their clientele, provide a high standard of attention and care. This can be difficult as the state keeps rapidly changing processes, interfering with and qualifying a long-term endeavor.

Finally, the individual enters the integration stage during which they live independently, but continue to have some financial dependence on the state or an NGO as they build skills and prepare to enter the workforce. 6 months to a year later, they enter the autonomous stage where they can rely on NGO support to search for jobs but are otherwise independent. In its entirety, the process can take up to 3 years for ordinary cases. Yet even after up to 3 years of integration, an asylum application can be denied— meaning that the applicant must return to their country of origin. The slow wait times, low acceptance rates, and inability to work—unlike in other EU countries such as Germany, where the wait to work is only 3 months—during the initial stages of acogida make Spain an uncertain destination for migrants. It also leads to immense stress on already economically strapped civil society organizations, which receive inconsistent government support. This is crucial, as civil society organizations like ONG Rescate often refuse the one size fits all view of refugees that can complicate integration. “We always try to help the person” William added. “[Acogida] has to be transcultural.”

As we will see in Part II, there is a willingness and eagerness amongst Spaniards to realize this important goal—but it is not always clear how to create such a transcultural policy.


 

 

Madison Chapman is a MALD candidate at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. She most recently served as a Fulbright ETA in Madrid, Spain, where she also conducted research and helped to resettle refugee women and LGBTQI+ migrants through ONG Rescate. She has formerly worked with Human Rights Watch, PeaceWomen, and the East Bay Community Law Center on migration and gender research, and is focused on gender-responsive asylum law and resettlement policy. She earned her degree in Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. Ms. Chapman can be contacted at madisonchapman10@gmail.com.