Archive for Human Rights at Columbia

Gaza On Screen: An Interview with Film Festival Curator, Nadia Yaqub

By: Laura Charney, RightsViews Staff Writer

This April, the Center for Palestine Studies at Columbia University hosted the “Gaza on Screen” film festival highlighting films made by Gazans and about Gaza. Curated by Dr. Nadia Yaqub, “Gaza on Screen” offered an invitation to not only bear witness to the lived struggles and resilience of Gazans, but also the opportunity to engage the ways that Gazans articulate and envision their own experiences.

For over twenty years, Palestinian film festivals across North America and Europe have brought Palestinian stories to international audiences. However, Palestinians in Gaza face particularly prohibitive measures that inhibit the communication of their stories. Since 2007, Israel has maintained a blockade on Gaza, controlling its airspace, coastline, and borders, and restricting the movement of goods and humans entering or leaving the territory.

It was not until this past April at Columbia University that a film festival focusing exclusively on Gazan stories came to life. In an attempt to shine light on the issues specifically facing Gazans, “Gaza on Screen” strove to unsettle some of the borders that hinder the circulation of Gazan stories.

The three-day-long film festival programmed feature-length films, documentaries, short films, and a master class with Abdelsalam Shehada, a Gaza-based film director who has made over 20 documentaries.

There was also a Q&A with some of the student filmmakers who directed the short films. Mohammed S. Ewais, a student at Al-Aqsa University, joined the film festival over Skype from Gaza City to discuss his film, We Love Life (2015), a documentary-style portrait of Gaza-based graffiti artist Belal Khaled, who transforms architecture gone derelict from Israeli explosions into works of art. The title of the film comes from the Mahmoud Darwish poem: “We love life if we find a way to it.” When asked if there was a political message in his film, Ewais responded, “To spread awareness of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. No one knows what is going on here.”

 

Because of the embargo, Gaza faces a water crisis, constant electricity outages, destroyed infrastructure, and a deteriorated economy. Israel’s multi-layered apparatus of state control is justified under the pretense of security, while denying Gazans the tools to secure their own livelihoods. The intensive border regime means that international perceptions of Gaza are often marred by the impossibility of accessing and understanding the actual experiences of Palestinians in Gaza.

In the keynote speech at the Dreams of a Nation Palestine Film Festival at Columbia University in 2003, Edward Said said that “the whole history of the Palestinian struggle has to do with the desire to be visible.” Palestinian-produced films, like those shown at “Gaza on Screen,” engages this struggle, through bringing to the fore the names, memories, and personalities of individuals and families who are often represented in broad and stereotypical strokes in dominant media narratives.

The pursuit of being “visible” is also bound within the limitations that Palestinians face when attempting to access their own written histories. Since Israel invaded Beirut in 1982, Palestinian national archives have been in the hands of the Israeli Defense Force. The Israeli state has placed restrictions and legal obstacles that hinder access to the Palestinian archives, effectively controlling the possibilities of generating Palestinian-produced historical knowledge by rendering it inaccessible to its traditional owners.

Visual material is one force that disrupts this censorship. Film affords the potential of narrating stories that have been displaced in the archives. Palestinian cinema – factual and fictive – has been a crucial force in making visible political realities that authentically reflect lived experiences.

The circulation of Palestinian film allows stories to speak to audiences across borders. When describing his feelings on visual narratives, Ewais stated: “Cinema is my only way out.” Because of the blockade, he has never left Gaza. Ewais is one of the many directors and filmmakers who contributed to telling Gazan stories at “Gaza on Screen.”

“Gaza On Screen” was curated by Nadia Yaqub, Professor and Chair in the Department of Asian Studies and Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at UNC Chapel Hill. Dr. Yaqub’s research critically examines Arab cultural texts, and has recently focused on Palestinian literature and visual culture. Her latest book, Palestinian Cinema in the Days of Revolution (2018), analyzes films of the Palestinian national liberation movement through the late 1960s and 1970s.

I spoke to Dr. Yaqub over the phone to discuss Gazan self-representation on film, the possibilities of visually and transnationally communicating resistance, and the urgency of telling stories that are meant to be silenced.

 

 

Dr. Nadia Yaqub

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Laura Charney: What did you want to illuminate about Gaza when curating this film festival?

Nadia Yaqub: The idea was Hamid Dabashi’s [Hagop Kervokian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University]. He approached me and asked me to curate this film festival. I had never done any work specifically on Gaza, but it immediately sounded interesting. I have done many years of work on Palestinian cinema, and I had thought a lot about the difference between filmmaking in exile, filmmaking under occupation, and the filmmaking among citizens of Israel.

Gaza as a particular unit has an interesting, distinct history within the larger Palestinian history because of its relationship to resistance. The resistance movement, the PLO as a militant organization, the first Intifada, all have their origins in the Gaza Strip.

Geographically, it’s this little piece carved out of Israel. Gazan residents live in close proximity to the homes that they lost in 1948. The huge influx of refugees in 1948 utterly changed the demographics of the area, and that has just been exacerbated ever since, through rapid population growth. If you can define the Palestinian condition as one of exile and displacement and ongoing dispossession, Gaza is always the extreme case.

There is a lot I couldn’t include in the film festival, but I was immediately interested in the variety of film material – the ways in which Gaza had been manipulated by different actors in film, the ways in which Gazans had represented themselves, the ways in which Gazans or others have tried to intervene in the visual materials about Gaza such that it is not only defined by conflict and dispossession, but also in fiction film, experimental film, in documentaries.

What I tried to do with the festival was very briefly trace a history of image making. At the same time, include these various types of representations and to represent different perspectives, but always varieties of what I would call a Palestinian-centric perspective. I wasn’t interested in including how Israel views Gaza, or how Iran or Hezbollah, who are close allies of Gaza, support or use Gaza for their own ends. Those are all interesting questions that I did not want to broach. There is a lot of film that is made from the perspective of solidarity activists – people who were on the ground in 2008, 2009, who participated in various flotillas, for instance. I wasn’t interested in those stories for the purposes of this film festival. That’s what I mean by a Palestinian-centric view.

LC: Because Gaza is under blockade, this film festival provided an opportunity for many to be let in on how Gazans view themselves, and Gaza itself. International understanding of Gaza often comes from how journalists cover it, or how the Israeli media portrays it. The student films provided a kind of radical disruption from these dominant representations – hearing their stories, the way they want to tell them, is quite rare.

NY: Yes. Film is obviously a form of communication. People make films in order for other people to see them: there’s something sort of inherently transnational about it. In some ways that are different from literature, film is about communicating outward. Films about Palestine are almost always made for outside audiences. Within that framework that’s kind of messy and transnational, it’s hard to define – what is a Palestinian film? Does the director have to be Palestinian, and what does that mean? Do they have to have Palestinian blood in their veins? Do they have to have lived in Palestine or within a Palestinian community? Those are messy questions. Nonetheless, we somehow, through that messiness, have to sift out the Palestinian voices, and the Gazan voices, and attempt to recognize what they are saying. Some films in the series – Antoni Akacha’s film Voices from Gaza, and Savona’s film Samouni Road – were not made by Palestinians, but I did feel as if they fit within this framework.  That is probably a product of those filmmakers’ long engagement with Palestine and Gaza.

LC: I noticed that a lot of the films on the lineup were documentaries, ethnographic, or experimental of some kind. I’m thinking about what metaphor can do to express the inexpressible, and the choice behind not including so many fictional films. Is there a draw in Gaza toward experimental or documentary films? How does this reflect the landscape of filmmaking in Gaza, and how Palestinian and Gazan filmmakers articulate their own stories?

NY: In my research, I found that there are about 15 feature-length fictional films that have been made about or in Gaza. Five of them were made in Egypt in the fifties and early sixties – they’re Egyptian films, where Gaza is this territory where Egyptian characters go to work our their problems. They’re very melodramatic.

11 feature films have been made from the early 90s until today. That’s not insignificant if you think about how tiny Gaza is. But the vast majority of films are documentary. The number of essay and experimental films in the program are not reflective of their percentage of output.

A lot of documentaries made about Gaza are international – to tell an international audience, ‘this is how difficult it is to cross borders,’ ‘this is what’s going on with fisherman,’ ‘this is what it’s like to live in a refugee camp.’ Where you draw the line between a reportage, which is a bit longer than a news story, and address in a little more depth a current situation, and a documentary, is almost impossible to decide sometimes. There’s a huge amount of this material, but it makes it a conversation about journalism, rather than about filmmaking. There is a bias toward the unusual in the film festival that I did.

LC: Considering the history of stolen Palestinian archives, or archives that are inaccessible to the public, I would imagine that you faced some limitations in putting this selection of films together. What were some of the challenges you faced in curating this selection?

NY: For this film festival, the issue wasn’t really stolen archives. Of course, there is the famous case of the five PLO archives that disappeared during the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982, including the archive of the Palestinian Cinema Institute, but bear in mind that that filmmaking did not include very much material about Gaza. I did include one of those films which has been found – it has not yet been restored so the copy that was screened was scratchy – but that may be the only film from the early period, before 1982, that the PLO made that focused on Gaza.

The problem of the archive more generally was definitely a challenge. This is a particularly Palestinian problem in the sense that there is no national Palestinian archive or archive project. To be fair, if you look across the Arab world, the difficulty of accessing archives of Arab film in other Arab countries has not necessarily helped film scholarship on the Arab world. There’s the notorious case of Syria. From the mid-60s until the Syrian civil war, they funded, produced, many hugely interesting films. Those films would be released, often during the Damascus International Film Festival, perhaps some of them would screen at, say, the Carthage Film Festival in Tunis, and then they were locked up and no one got to see them. Film scholarship on Syrian film has been severely limited for that reason. This may be one of the most extreme cases, but it is also not easy to do research on Algerian film, Tunisian film, Moroccan film.

I could imagine if the PA [Palestinian Authority] were to form a film archive, the problem of Palestinian politics – the Fatah/Hamas split, for instance – would be the big issue, and how the PA has dealt with the PLO’s militant past. Those questions would probably give rise to a problematic archive.

LC: Something that came up among audience members throughout the film festival was how resistance and political struggle is framed in these films. Abdelsalam Shehada’s films, for instance, are gorgeous, but they also represent an ideal of nonviolent resistance. This is something that some people grappled with. At the same time, I think the goal of a lot of these films was to disrupt normative assumptions about Gaza. How do these films situate themselves within a wider history of Palestinian political struggle in cinema?

NY: I would say that filmmakers are quite savvy in responding to the global context in which they are working. In the 1970s, when you had a militant Palestinian film movement, the idea of national liberation through armed struggle was global. It was accepted as a legitimate means for oppressed people to achieve their rights. There was, for instance, the Vietnam War, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the struggles in Latin America – they are allies of the PLO. The PLO were not, by themselves, advocating armed resistance.

The struggle was placed within the context of the Cold War, so it’s complex. Of course, many of these organizations were labelled as terrorist within mainstream media in the West, but there were also allies. It was a completely differently landscape. Now, the ideological battle line is drawn between the Muslim world and the rest. So, Palestinian militancy is really only alive within an Islamic militant movement. There’s only very little marginal support for that in the West, and there’s lots of reasons for that – I’m not arguing by any means that leftists in the West should support Hamas or Hezbollah, but we also don’t need to glorify or romanticize the nature of armed resistance from the 1970s. That was really problematic and compromised, both in terms of the Palestinian movement, and globally.

For a Palestinian filmmaker who wants to engage with a western audience, there is no space for any kind of claim of violent resistance. Nonviolence is the only space. You have to work within the space you’re given.

LC: This is a really crucial distinction – understanding who the films are made for. Not to sound insensitive, but there is a need to humanize Gaza, because of the dominant narrative that associates Gazans with terrorism. That was, to me, why a film like Samouni Road was so powerful.

NY: I think that’s an extremely powerful film. There was a scene that really stood out to me, where the family talks about their apolitical stance. They’re not a part of any political party, they don’t want money from Hamas, they don’t want their tragedy to be exploited. It seemed to me – that was a message to us.

LC: Yes – it also makes me wonder, as a western audience, the complexity with which we are prepared to give Palestinian subjects on film. The dichotomy between peaceful resistance – being apolitical, nonviolent – versus active political resistance, is reductive. Yet it is only the former that tends to be palatable to western audiences.

NY: This is interesting in the context of the history of human rights filmmaking. Monica Maurer is a German filmmaker who worked within the PLO in the last years of Beirut. 1979 was declared the UN International Year of the Child, so a lot of filmmakers took advantage of that to create films about children. [Maurer] made a film called “Children of Palestine.” The film is structured around the declaration of the rights of the child – they have the right to family and freedom, to work and education and time to play, a national identity, and several other rights. She structured the film around each of these rights and shows how the PLO, through its armed struggle, is working to mitigate the ways in which Israel is denying children these rights. The film won first prize at the International Human Rights Film Festival in Bulgaria in 1980. So militancy, as a way of working towards human rights, used to not be incompatible. Returning to what we were discussing earlier, the discourse has changed around the world. There are things you could say in the early 80s that you cannot say now.

LC: It is fascinating to think of the construction of victimhood on film – how constructing the ideal victim often necessitates taking away any kind of political agency.

NY: Yes, and that is the central challenge that Palestinian filmmakers face today. I suppose that this was one of the things I was working through in curating the film festival: exactly how you can communicate Palestinian experiences in a way that works in this context, without reinforcing that image of the Palestinian as a victim.

Effective Human Rights: Between Critique and the Non-ideal Realities of Practice

By Professor Danielle Celermajer, RightsViews guest writer and author of The Prevention of Torture


In recent years, human rights, understood as a form of transformative practice, have been attacked from both left and right. On the right, human rights are increasingly framed as weapons in the arsenal of a liberal internationalist agenda, designed to weaken national security and national identity. On the left, insofar as they fail to attend to the structural underpinnings of violations, human rights are, if not a cover for neoliberalism, then at least complicit in its expansion.  For human rights advocates, the question of how best to respond to critics from the right is largely a political and strategic one, a matter of defending territory, building alliances, and working out appropriate framing for campaigns. Responding to critics from the left is less a matter of altering the outward face of human rights than of turning inwards to critically reflect on the orientations, assumptions, logics and strategic toolkit of human rights.  

The question of what doing this entails is what inspired me to develop an experimental project on the prevention of torture.  Along with an inter-disciplinary and international team, I conducted research on ‘the root causes of torture’, with a particular focus on  the police and armed police in Nepal and the police and military in Sri Lanka. On the basis of this research, and with a particular focus on the factors within security sector organizations that created the conditions for torture to occur and persist, we then sought to develop and pilot preventative strategies that sought to address some of torture’s root causes by effecting systemic organizational change. To be clear, the type of torture we were interested in was not the spectacular torture that largely attracts media and public attention, but the habitual torture that takes place as a matter of course in places of detention throughout the world: the beatings, the humiliation of detainees that happens as a matter of course.

Undertaking a project of this type is challenging and fraught practically, conceptually and ethically. If, however, we believe that what drives and sustains torture is more than malevolent intention or political ideology, either on the part of direct perpetrators or those higher up, then we need to step in close to capture the actual factors – structural, systemic, procedural and cultural – that authorize, incentivize, legitimate, facilitate, and create opportunities for torture to occur. In fact, one of our findings was that, contrary to the way we tend to think about the structure of authority in states where torture is endemic, in many cases, torture does not emit from the commands of higher ups in an imagined vertical chain of command. Rather, it emerges from a more complex set of interacting factors distributed across an ecology that comprises the political system, the criminal justice system, the broader culture and society, dominant ideologies, and the organizations where torture occurs.

This does not mean that individuals don’t matter, or that we should cease holding them responsible (and criminally liable) for their role in the authorization and enactment of torture; but it does mean that when it comes to developing effective strategies for prevention, focusing on the choices or orientations of individuals without attending to the contexts that condition such choices and orientations will always fall short. As I argue in The Prevention of Torture: An Ecological Approach, keeping the reasons for punishing perpetrators distinct from the question of what is effective by way of preventing torture both protects the integrity of the logic of punishment, and allows us to examine the question of prevention without being compelled by the ethics of individual responsibility.

A further key argument I make in the book is that, while necessary, formal law (not only criminal law, but also laws seeking to effect systemic change), is far from sufficient when it comes to bringing about the type of wide-ranging and sustainable institutional reform required to prevent torture. In their recent comprehensive empirical comparative study of different approaches to torture prevention, Carver and Handley make a similar finding. They measure both the effect of particular types of interventions (like changing conditions of detention), and the effect of laws requiring those intervention, and they find that the latter fares far more poorly. The problem is that the reliance on law as a steering mechanism has dominated the human rights world for so long that we now find ourselves ill equipped, in terms of knowledge and skills, to develop other, potentially more effective tools for institutional transformation.

In our torture prevention project, we drew on literature from public health and organizational change theory and practice to think through and try out other ways of shifting entrenched norms, behaviors and systems. I would certainly not claim that we were successful in implementing strategies that prevented torture in our target sites; but our work did suggest a number of approaches, as well as a framework for researching and mapping the factors that cause and condition torture that will, I hope, prove invaluable as others take up what remains a daunting challenge.

Does this provide a response to the left critics who contend that human rights, as an approach, is incapable of addressing the structural underpinnings of violations? Well, it depends on what you mean by structural underpinnings. If you mean ‘global capitalism’ or ‘neoliberalism’, then clearly not. But if our role as scholars is to provide practitioners with frameworks and tools that they can take back into the field to do the critical work of prevention, pointing to invisible and unreachable forces like the structure of the economy is unlikely to prove helpful. As ‘structural practice-oriented’ human rights scholars, we need to think about structural underpinnings in a more expansive way. That means attending to the meso-level factors – the various structures and processes of the different systems within which torture is embedded. Learning how to identify these and then change them will be critical to effectively preventing torture.


Danielle Celermajer is a Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney. Her publications include Sins of the Nation and the Ritual of Apology (Cambridge University Press 2009) and The Prevention of Torture: An Ecological Approach (Cambridge University Press, 2018).  She is currently director of the Multispecies Justice Project at the University of Sydney.

Is Liberalism Making the World Less Fair?

On February 18 at Columbia Law School, three authors discussed the ways in which their respective books shed light on liberalism. Though each speaker addressed slightly different topics, the common thread was a questioning of U.S. institutions and their connections with economic liberalism, an economic philosophy that supports and promotes laissez-faire economics and private property in the means of production.

From left to right: Samuel Moyn. Tonya Putnam. Todd N Tucker, Brooke Guven (moderator)

The first to speak was Samuel Moyn, professor of law and history at Yale, and the author of Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World. He introduced his book by speaking about how interwoven  the foundations of human rights are to a neoliberal agenda.“We need to attempt to think of where human rights came from,” as presently “human rights are an inefficient form of bettering the world,” he said.

He engaged with the audience by asking them thought-provoking questions such as “why have human rights done so little and why do they fit in so well with a neoliberal economy?” In Moyn’s opinion, pursuing economic and social rights fits well into a neoliberal agenda.

Some experts would argue differently, suggesting that a neoliberal agenda actually undermines socio-economic rights, as it reduces entrenched socio-economic rights to formal, procedural guarantees, rather than substantive material entitlements. Thus, rather than fitting perfectly into a neoliberal agenda, socio-economic rights are threatened by the constraints and formalities of politics.

Moyn claimed that the primary limitations of the human rights framework, in its function to advance the world, are that human rights are territorial in scope and offer people only the bare minimum of socio-economic rights.

Tonya Putnam, associate professor of political science at Columbia University, and the author of Courts without Borders: Laws, Politics, and U.S. Extraterritoriality, spoke next. She is interested in looking at the behavior of domestic U.S. courts and analyzing in which cases these courts have been willing to regulate conduct outside of the United States. Moreover, she argued that domestic law and foreign policy are associated with each other.

Putnam argued that U.S. courts and their decisions are complex and nuanced. She disagreed with views such as those of Jonathan Turley, an American legal scholar who believes that U.S. Courts will exercise their domains based off of economic nationalism. Rather, Putnam assumes a broader analysis to evaluate how legal systems work. Believing that judges are inward-looking, Putnam said,  “the likelihood that people bring forward cases to court typically depends on individuals who are being constrained by U.S. rules, and thus, seek to push out jurisdiction to try to undercut U.S. regulations.” This is also seen with international treaties. Jurisdiction is not applied to U.S. actors if treaties have not been ratified.

The last panelist to speak was Todd N. Tucker, political scientist and fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, and the author of Judge Knot: Politics and Development in International Investment Law. Tucker’s take was mostly portrayed through the lens of investment law and investor-state dispute settlements. Tucker found that because arbitrations lack precedent, they are reliant on the supply and demand of ideas. Thus, cases will not be addressed unless companies bring them to the table.

As a result, “there is a certain level of marketization attached to investor-state dispute settlements,” Tucker said, as the very system depends on companies bringing forth cases in order for judges to try them. This becomes exaggerated when there is no judicial tenure and the reputation of the judges plays a large role in getting more or less business.

Tucker stated that a recent phenomenon that we are seeing is people “decrying national emergencies from liberalism, without looking at liberalism as the problem.” He feels as if, moving forward, progressive internationationlism has to be implemented, with a focus on economic features that can have effects on legal orders that can contribute to distributional justice.

The talk concluded with the panelists agreeing that bettering institutions to ensure progress is not a matter of improving international legal standards, but rather about the content of the laws that we are choosing to implement. The panelists further agreed that while, for them, human rights standards are not establishing solid enough distributional justice, they are propelling activists and individuals to engage with institutions.  


By Jalileh Garcia, RightsViews Staff Writer

Financing the SDGs, Privatization, and Human Rights: A Conversation with Jeffrey Sachs and Philip Alston

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are a plan of action designed with the intent to eradicate poverty “in all its forms and dimensions” and establish universal world peace by 2030 in order to move towards a more sustainable future. On January 30, Columbia welcomed Philip Alston and Jeffrey Sachs to speak on the issue of “Financing the SDGs, Privatization, and Human Rights.” The event was co-sponsored by the Columbia Center on Sustainable Development, the SIPA MPA in Development Practice Program, the ISHR, RightsLink, and the Human Rights Institute. Sachs is the Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General on the SDGs and Alston is the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights.

To begin the conversation about the intersection of the SDGs, Human Rights, and the increasing problem of privatization in the achievement of the SDGs, the moderator asked Alston and Sachs about their opinions on the ways in which the SDG and Human Rights frameworks converge and diverge in terms of their goals and objectives. Both men agreed that the basic concepts of the two are incredibly similar, Alston stating that human rights aims to eliminate poverty and promote general equality and a range of other issues addressed in the SDGs. Rhetorically, said Sachs, the SDGs take the same perspective that the Human Rights movement has always taken since the establishment of the UDHR in 1948. The first UN decade for development began in 1961 and stated its goals in the language of economic and social human rights, he said.

However, said Alston, the human rights language in the SDGs are treated more like “token references” and “in practice, there has been a greater division in efforts to promote the SDGS…while also promoting respect for human rights.” Sachs argued that this is likely because human rights tend to be downplayed in the negotiating process to account for countries like China and the US rejecting references to human rights in the development context. Human Rights language adds a “measure of intellectual and moral discipline and harder edge to this” than states wish to place on the sustainable agenda. Ultimately, said Sachs, this is rooted in power: poverty is a terrible barrier but we cannot realize these rights because the conditions to realize them are about who has power and how it is used.

When it comes to financing the SDGs, there is an incredible budget gap; we are not on track to meet the 2030 agenda. Sachs believes that the basic problem with financing is that in low income countries, “the money is just not available to do even the most rudimentary things.”

On average, he estimated that the US can devote $18,000 per capita per year to development like health and education whereas a poor country may only have $160 per capita. This stark contrast is why he believes that the richer world ought to help pay for the poorer world to be able to implement the development goals that the SDGs aspire to. At the global level, he argues for international transfers and taxes beyond mere development assistance, which averages only 0.3% of the income of rich countries. “There is no global community,” said Sachs. We need international transfers of at least 2-4% as part of the international scene for financing the SDGs.

Alston added that there is an increasing trend towards privatization over public financing. Governments are trying to outsource their responsibilities inspired by the philosophy of “You’re on your own. Don’t think the government is there to help you.” He offered the example of the privatization on transportation in the UK, where all of the state except for London runs solely on private systems. These private companies make the decisions on where and when to run transport and overcharge customers, making it too expensive for low income people to even get to basic locations like their employment or hospitals. Overall, Alston said that “we see systemic outsourcing of what used to be seen as human rights obligations that governments held.”

Sachs added that we need to map out what things should be private and public. When it comes to anything that we generally want universally applied, he said the first thing that must be initiated is public financing. Universality is key, he stressed. We cannot have competitive private infrastructure because infrastructure is something that needs to be equal for all. Development goods like health care are based on values; thus we should be publicly financing them.

The SDGs as a whole do envision a role for the private sector, but that element has been overused by governments. Alston and Sachs were asked how this trend of privatization can be rolled back or realigned with the true SDGs. Quite simply, both agree that human rights can be incredibly important for realigning development values. Alston said that “we have to start pushing back against the accepted wisdom that [privatization] is the way to go.” We shouldn’t be looking to the corporate world as engines for promoting human rights. We need to start at the beginning with public financing of the rights to education and health care, to name a few. Sachs insisted that human rights language can be incredibly important in this process because it resonates and is true. Fundamentally, he said, this is a political challenge to discredit big corporations.

When it comes to financing the SDGs, there are a lot of nuanced decisions that go into where and how funds are directed. However, it is clear from our discussion with Alston and Sachs that moving away from privatization and using human rights rhetoric to support public financing is a strategy that predicts progress in SDG realization as we near 2030.


By Rowena Kosher, RightsViews Editor

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

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

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 

On International Day of Peace, A Celebration of Human Rights

By Ashley E. Chappo, editor of RightsViews and a graduate of Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and Columbia Journalism School

Human rights, specifically the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), are the focus of this year’s International Day of Peace, or “Peace Day,” which takes place across the world each year on September 21.

This UN-designated day of observance advocates peace action and education in spite of ongoing human conflict through peace-building activities, a global minute of silence, intercultural and interfaith dialogues, vigils, concerts, feasts, and marches. This year’s theme is “The Right to Peace – The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70.”

The timing for the theme is apropos: it comes at a period when the human condition is increasingly vulnerable, beset by global conflict and dependent on world leaders who have turned their backs on international cooperation. During this state of prolonged human suffering, the power and failings of a single document of 30 human rights ideals comes into pronounced focus. Why should we celebrate the UDHR? Now 70 years old, has it made any real difference to peace and the protection of people?

UN Secretary-General António Guterres spoke at UN Headquarters in New York City in Peace Day, September 21, 2018. // UNAMI // Twitter

One lens through which to view these questions: the current state of international affairs, in which we grapple with intractable problems like the Syrian Civil War, ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, crisis in Congo, civil war in Yemen, war in Afghanistan, conflict in Iraq, violence in Venezuela, and a crisis of 68.5 million people forcibly displaced worldwide. Perhaps it’s time we relied less on hope and principles, and a little more on action.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres seemed to openly acknowledge doubts about the ability of international compacts to uphold human rights in the present day as he spoke today at UN Headquarters in New York City. At the same time, he also pushed back against these uncertainties with vigorous optimism.

“When we are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we know that human rights are violated in so many parts of the world, we even know that the human rights agenda is losing ground,” Guterres said. “But we don’t give up because respect for human rights and human dignity is a basic condition for peace.”

Forging ahead against challenges was the key sentiment of today’s remarks.

“We are here because we are determined and we do not give up. We see conflicts multiplying everywhere in the world. We see links between conflicts and terrorism. We see insecurity prevailing. We see people suffering. But we don’t give up,” he continued.

Children dressed in white played the violin in the Peace Garden at United Nations Headquarters. Guterres concluded the ceremony by ringing the Peace Bell to commemorate Peace Day.

A violionist during the annual Peace Bell ceremony held at UN headquarters in observance of the International Day of Peace (21 September). // Cia Pak // UN Photo

Overall, the feeling from the ceremony was uplifting. But are words and gatherings anything more than a good sound bite or a symbolic gesture? Why do we need the UDHR in 2018 when it has proven ineffective at preventing human atrocities in its 70-year history?

One good reason: it represents an important milestone in our human rights fight that sets a common standard for all peoples and all nations. Since the UDHR was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948, its words have reverberated across continents. Its 30 articles affirming individual rights have been translated into some 370 languages, making it one of the most translated documents in the world.

Furthermore, although not legally binding or a treaty itself, the UDHR is widely considered the foundational document of international human rights law that has served as inspiration for many of our world’s legally-binding international human rights treaties and resolutions. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1965) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), for example, both came into force as a direct outcome of the UDHR, enshrining in law many of its ideals. Similarly, the Convention Against Torture (1984) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) track their roots to the UDHR. Traces of its articles are also found in the language of many national constitutions.

As of 2018, all UN member States have ratified at least one of the nine international human rights instruments that make up the core body of legally-binding international human rights law, with the majority ratifying four or more of these treaties. Once a State becomes party to any one of these international treaties, it accepts certain obligations to respect and fulfill these rights.

In this regard, Guterres’ optimism has legs. His hopefulness was shared many years ago by Eleanor Roosevelt, chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights and a prominent author of the UDHR. She believed fully “in the force of documents which do express ideals.”

However, she also believed that human rights begin in small places, close to home.

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.” — Eleanor Roosevelt, United Nations, 1958

Eleanor Roosevelt holds up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. // UN Photo

A key part of upholding the UDHR, she notes, is civic action to ensure these rights; action that demands response from leaders who have either turned a blind eye or who openly defy justice.

“Without concerted citizen action to uphold [rights] close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world,” she said in a speech at the United Nations.

Join RightsViews in honoring the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Peace Day 2018! As part of the global celebration of this important document, which continues into December, you can add your voice in your own language to the Declaration as part of a UN collaborative video project. You can also read an illustrated version of the UDHR, available on the UN’s website.


Ashley E. Chappo is a recent graduate of Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs, where she studied human rights and international conflict resolution, and Columbia Journalism School, where she studied multimedia and investigative reporting. You can follow her on Twitter @AshleyChappo. She is editor of RightsViews.