Archive for Human Rights at Columbia

A Year After Jamal Khashoggi’s Assassination, The War On Truth Continues

By: Kyoko Thompson, staff writer at RightsViews

“A commission is coming from Saudi Arabia tomorrow; they have something to do in the Consulate. They will have something to do on my floor in the office.” – October 1 2018, 21:48

At 1:15 PM on Tuesday, October 2, 2018, Washington Post contributor and longtime journalist Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, and was never seen again. His death was not the first of its kind. According to the United Nations, more than one thousand journalists have been murdered since 2006. Yet it drew international attention from governments and individuals alike, many of whom demanded justice. The events that followed challenged the limits of international law and U.S. foreign policy. One year later, an investigation yields more questions than answers, such as: What does justice for Khashoggi look like? Is his death a manifestation of a deeper, more insidious trend? And: What is the future of free speech in an era where authoritarianism and misinformation are not an outlier, but the norm?

 

“He has arrived.” – October 2, 2018; 13:13

 

In November 2018, Turkey shared audio of Jamal Khashoggi’s October 2nd visit to the Saudi consulate with Britain, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. In it, Saudi officials can be heard discussing Khashoggi’s imminent arrival and assassination. The recordings, obtained from inside the consulate itself, provide gruesome confirmation of what was already strongly suspected by journalists and politicians alike: Jamal Khashoggi was lured to the consulate under the false pretense of obtaining documents required for his marriage to then-fiancee Hatice Cengiz, and brutally executed, dismembered, and disposed of by Saudi authorities. 

Much of the narrative available to the public today is the result of the efforts of the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Dr. Agnes Callamard—who, with the assistance of the recordings, consulate security footage, and Turkish authorities, was able to piece together the events immediately leading up to, and following, Khashoggi’s death. An expert in human rights, Dr. Callamard possesses extensive experience in the field, having previously worked with Amnesty International, Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP), and ARTICLE 19. In December 2018, she began a six-month investigation that culminated in the release of her report on the inquiry into the unlawful death of Jamal Khashoggi at the 41st session of the Human Rights Council in June of this year. Her findings, which criticize the international response to Khashoggi’s murder—including the response of Saudi and U.S. officials—shed a harsh light on the consequences of free speech, and the limitations of international law. Her official opinion? This was a state-sanctioned killing. 

While Saudi authorities have continued to insist that Khashoggi’s death was a domestic matter, “I completely disagree with this analysis,” said Dr. Callamard at an event at Columbia Law School last month. On the contrary, she says, Khashoggi was murdered by fifteen Saudi officials—named in her report—“fourteen of whom in my opinion have worked together before.” And, while she did not assign individual liability, she did strongly assert that Khashoggi’s death “constituted an extrajudicial killing for which the State of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is responsible.” Moreover, the killing—and Saudi Arabia’s procedural and official response to it—violated multiple international laws, including the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. According to Dr. Callamard, the impact is clear: this was a crime “of such a nature, in my view, that it qualified as an international crime, and therefore that it could lead to universal jurisdiction.” 

 

“How could this happen in an embassy?” – Jamal Khashoggi, October 2, 2018; 13:22

 

Khashoggi, who left Saudi Arabia in self-imposed exile in September of 2017, was a well known Saudi dissident and critic of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. He claimed that the government had banned him from using Twitter and pressured his publishers to fire him; and in fact his column in Al-Hayat, a popular Arabic daily, was canceled earlier that year. Determined not to be censored, Khashoggi moved to the United States so that he might continue to write for the Washington Post. In an opinion piece shortly after, he wrote “I have made a different choice now. I have left my home, my family and my job, and I am raising my voice. To do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison. I can speak when so many cannot. I want you to know that Saudi Arabia has not always been as it is now. We Saudis deserve better.” 

Human Rights Watch has confirmed that Saudi Arabia has a history of stifling free expression. In 2015 alone, more than six writers and advocates were arrested and punished for peacefully expressing their opinions. According to Human Rights Watch, “One was sentenced to death and the others to lengthy prison terms. At least four were also banned from traveling abroad for five to 10 years.” Usually, the sort of opinions that cause pushback from the Saudi government are those that characterize it, or its leadership, unfavorably. Khashoggi, however, believed he was being silenced because of remarks he made at an event in November of 2016. At the event—a panel discussion at the Washington Institute for the Near East—Khashoggi warned that Saudi Arabia should be wary of a Trump presidency because his stances on the Middle East were contradictory, which wasn’t likely to change. Ironically, Trump has actually remained steadfastly supportive of Saudi Arabia since taking office—so supportive, in fact, that he turned a blind eye to Khashoggi’s murder.

Trump and Prince bin Salman in 2017

Nearly two months after Kashoggi’s disappearance and after weeks of seeming to avoid commenting on the incident, President Donald Trump finally announced that he was “standing with Saudi Arabia.” In many ways, this is not surprising; according to the Council on Foreign Relations, Saudi Arabia is a “critical strategic partner in the region,” and the countries’ cooperation in mutual business and security interests survived even 9/11.  In his statement, issued in November 2018, Trump cited mainly economic reasons—not the least of which was oil—for his continued support of a state that even the CIA concluded ordered the extrajudicial killing and dismemberment of a U.S. resident and Washington Post journalist. “After my heavily negotiated trip to Saudi Arabia last year, the Kingdom agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States. This is a record amount of money. It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, tremendous economic development, and much additional wealth for the United States.”

If Donald Trump was to radically diverge from the course set by previous administrations and stand against Saudi Arabia, one imagines that it would not be spurred by the untimely death of a journalist. He has, after all, shown little respect for journalists and their trade. Notorious for denouncing publications that describe him unfavorably, Trump has referenced “fake news” in his Tweets no less than 578 times since winning the 2016 presidential election—that’s once every two days. Perhaps even more appallingly, on October 24th, 2019, Trump canceled subscriptions to two publications that will henceforth no longer be delivered to the White House. White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham defended the decision, saying that “hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars will be saved” as the administration moves to force other federal agencies to cancel their subscriptions, as well. The publications that were banned? The New York Times and the Washington Post—two publications that frequently criticize Trump and his administration (the infamous September 2018 op-ed in The New York Times is a rather memorable example). 

Is it a coincidence that the very publication Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist whose government made numerous attempts to silence before murdering him in cold blood, contributed to is one which Trump himself has slandered and suppressed? Maybe. It is certainly eerie, though, that months before Khashoggi’s death, in February of 2017, the newspaper—which has not had an official slogan since its founding in 1877—changed its headline to “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward said it wasn’t so much a response to Trump as it was about “the dangers of secrecy in government, which is what I worry about most.” In fact, Woodward credits federal judge Damon J. Keith for the slogan. Keith wrote “Democracies die behind closed doors” in his 2002 ruling on Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft, which centered around closing immigration cases off from the press and public if they were of special interest to national security. He continued, “The First Amendment, through a free press, protects the people’s right to know that their government acts fairly, lawfully, and accurately…When government begins closing doors, it selectively controls information rightfully belonging to the people. Selective information is misinformation.” 

Judge Damon Keith passed away earlier this year, but his contributions to the law, civil rights, and free expression endure; and so do his parallels to today’s events. Because, you see, Judge Keith was famously sued personally by President Richard Nixon over his 1971 ruling against warrantless wiretaps—the sort of warrantless wiretaps used in the Watergate break-in a year later. Nixon, the president who used executive privilege to defy subpoenas, concealed information from Congress, and fired those that opposed him. The president whose close advisors were indicted for obstruction of justice. The president who was certain to be impeached in the House after a single, revelatory phone call. 

Free expression is a human right. It is protected in international human rights instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,  the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, among a plethora of others. Its significance is explicitly described and protected in documents such as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights General Comment No. 10, 11, and 34; not to mention the U.S. Constitution. So important is free expression, says the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), that without it, no liberty is secure; without it, “other fundamental rights, like the right to vote, would wither and die.”

There is no denying it: the United States is at war with information. Perhaps it always was. From Russia’s campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election to Mark Zuckerberg’s and Rupert Murdoch’s meetings with Trump officials, information is actively hidden, obscured, and weaponized by those in power at great risk to our Republic. And on the front lines of this battle are the warriors of free expression; that human right upon which so many others precariously stand. Warriors like Jamal Khashoggi—activists, advocates, and journalists. Courageous individuals who face the darkest of dark, where democracies go to die, and dare to turn on a light.

“The stout man with the gray goatee and the gentle demeanor dared to disagree with his country’s government. He told the world the truth about its brutality toward those who would speak out. And he was murdered for it.” 

– Karl Vick, Time Magazine, 2018 “The Guardians and the War on Truth”

Classrooms and Curricula: the Role of the Right to Education in the Prevention of Mass Atrocities

By: Nay Alhelou, RightsViews Co-editor

In her first talk in an academic setting in the USA while serving in her current capacity, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, Dr. Kombou Boly Barry, highlighted how education could help prevent mass atrocities. On October 15, she addressed students, teachers, and fellows at Columbia University and discussed the report she presented three days later to the United Nations.

Dr. Boly Barry was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2016 to examine the right to education as an independent expert. She is mandated to conduct country visits, respond to allegations of violations of the right to education and promoting dialogue with governments, civil society and other actors.

According to the Special Rapporteur, schools can either be the space where intolerance is harnessed or where tolerance is promoted. In favor of the former, she remarked: “In a world where everybody is afraid of everybody else… education should be used as a tool to help us push for the values of humanity.”

Cultural diversity and acceptance are some such human values that Dr. Boly Barry argues should be promoted in schools. She noted that, according to her research and field work,  in many colleges and schools around the world, teachers and students are being silenced and sent to prison – or even killed – for speaking up. Rather than being censored, Boly Barry believes that members of the education community should be given the chance to express themselves instead.

This is particularly relevant given that the role of education is a preventative one. The Special Rapporteur highlighted the need to help kids learn the core values of non-discrimination, equality and inclusivity before they become adults. When these values become part of children’s personalities, mass atrocities and gross human rights violations will occur less frequently. In addition, children should learn about genocides and mass atrocities that happened in the past, especially when these events have affected their cultures.

In response to a student who explained how Serbia continues to deny the existence of a mass atrocity in the country, Dr. Boly Barry said that “if you deny the history of a people, you are building the roots of war, violations and violence.”

Further, Dr. Boly Barry emphasized the role of open schools – schools where educational materials can be accessed by anyone – which allow parents to know what their children are learning in the classroom. She explained that if “students are blinded in their classrooms, they do not know what is happening in society.” Schools should follow curricula that not only promote the values of diversity and acceptance but that also bring theory and practice together, which also involves educating them on past histories of their nation and the world, as well as current events and debates.

In the discussion, it was also pointed out that schools established by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) already have a human rights curriculum. UNRWA students learn about human rights, healthy communication skills and peaceful conflict-resolution as well as tolerance. However, these students live in a reality that stands in contradiction to some of these ideals: for example, students in the West Bank and Gaza regularly face adversity and conflict and those living in refugee camps in Lebanon tend to suffer from dire socioeconomic conditions. Given these contradictions between an ideal world where human rights are fully enjoyed and a tough reality where some rights are abused, Dr. Boly Barry stressed that it is very important to contextualize what children are learning in school. Teachers can help their students make sense of what they are learning by using culturally-specific examples and discussing issues that affect their lives.

“If we forget the values of humanity in the process of education, we lose everything,” she said.

Dr. Boly Barry was a former Minister of Education in Burkina Faso and holds a PhD in Economic History. Her expertise in education, however, does not only stem from her professional and academic experiences but also from her personal experience as a woman coming from a nomadic background. Noting that only 2% of nomadic girls attend schools, the Special Rapporteur said that hers is an exceptional case but she hoped that through her mandate she can help people claim and enjoy their right to education.

As enshrined in Article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the right to education not only contributes to the development of human personality, but it also enables people to effectively participate in society. As students and academics enjoying their right to education at a top university, we have a duty to critically engage in this learning environment and use our skills to make for better, culturally-richer and more tolerant societies.

This talk was co-sponsored by Columbia University’s Teachers College International and Comparative Education Program, the University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute, and the Peace Education Network (PEN) of Teachers College.

A Living Text? Dr. Hugo Slim on War, Humanity, and the Geneva Conventions under the ICRC’s Mandate

By Rowena Kosher, Co-Editor of RightsViews

The International Committee of the Red Cross’ (ICRC) reverence for its mandate to the Geneva Conventions was obvious as Columbia students welcomed Hugo Slim, ICRC’s Head of Policy and Humanitarian Diplomacy Division, to speak on “War and Humanity: Challenges and Trends in the 70th Year of the Geneva Conventions” on November 6.

Photo by Michelle Chouinard

From its founding in 1863 in Geneva, the ICRC has been committed to the provision of international humanitarian aid, embedding itself as one of the core players in international humanitarian law (IHL) as it developed over time to regulate jus in bello, or the “conduct of war.” It was the ICRC that convinced states in 1864 to adopt the very first Geneva Convention, creating a universal obligation of care for all wounded soldiers. From that moment on, it was also the ICRC that ultimately headlined what the IHL community now holds as some of its most fundamental texts: the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their two 1977 protocols. These texts are the ICRC’s mandate, and as an organization, it holds them near and dear. 

Dr. Hugo Slim, with a copy of the Geneva Conventions. Photo by Rowena Kosher

Dr. Slim, a renowned figure in the humanitarian world, began his presentation by holding up a book: a dog-eared, well-worn, coffee-stained text containing the language of the Geneva Conventions. This book, he began, started in 1949 with only 60 states having ratified it. Now, in 2019, 197 states have acceded to the Geneva Conventions, and many parts of it have become so intuitive that states understand them as pieces of customary, binding law. “[This book] is a moral, legal, and political achievement,” he articulated, “and a real high point of humanitarian multilateralism.” 

And yet, although the Conventions are both an achievement and existing law, they are no less relevant today than they were during the World Wars. Slim described that these are texts that focus on violence and our response to violence—a reality that “continues to mark the human species in the present day.” Indeed, both the Conventions and the international environment face a changed world: one with more states parties, with more technology, with new mechanisms of warfare. All of this, he claimed, is vital to the ICRC fulfilling and furthering international humanitarian ethics. 

To accomplish this task, Slim believes in beginning with a return to the text, asking “what does humanity look like in the Geneva Conventions?” If the ICRC is mandated to protect humans in wartime, who does it serve, to what ends, and in what philosophical conception? 

On the most basic level, Slim said, the Geneva Conventions conceive of four groups of “protected persons:” the wounded and sick, the wounded at sea, prisoners of war, and civilians. These are the explicitly articulated classes of the legal text. Yet, the Conventions go beyond this to articulate protection of certain human relationships and human objects; relations or things that the texts deem “necessary to be fully human.” The relationships that the Conventions protect include family and the idea of “being with others in this world and not just being alone.” Objects essential to human survival, such as food, water, medicine, and business, also get recognition. On a cultural level, Slim argued that the Conventions protect objects essential to human meaning, from religious objects and sites to cultural property, such as libraries and historic art. To go even further, he noted that the environment enjoys protections of its own in the Conventions, receiving a legal personality by virtue of the fact that in order to be human, one needs the environment. 

Humanity, then, in the Geneva Conventions, is holistic. Slim said “To be alive is a matter of biology, but to live a life of dignity, one that is truly human, requires relationships and means of survival.” The Conventions move beyond the physical life into the communal life, beyond the human into the earth. He claimed that humanity becomes physical, emotional, and spiritual as the Conventions likewise function as a combination of law, military manual, social work guidance, and administrative guidance. Under their five action distinctions (precaution, distinction between soldier/civilian/object, proportionality, impartial relief, and human treatment), the Geneva Conventions enact their vision of humanity within the context of armed conflict. 

Slim’s main priority as the policy director of ICRC requires that he operationalize the Conventions’ vision of humanity in the present day, addressing the trends and challenges that have cropped up in our changing world. In this lecture, he listed several major strategic shifts worldwide that he sees as most pressing for the ICRC and the Geneva Conventions, as they attempt to accomplish their goals for humanitarian aid. 

Political Change

Photo by Michelle Chouinard

A total of 133 new states have acceded to the Conventions since 1949. The vast majority of these new parties are formerly colonized nations taking their rightful places on the world stage. This has challenged the “older” approach to global policy in which negotiations were a discussion among “like-minded states.” Now, Slim said, we live in a multipolar political environment. As such, the ICRC must answer with “multipolar diplomacy,” focusing on extending its network with a “multipolar footprint” and “network of multipolar relationships.” 

 

A Radical Conservative Wave

In recent years, a radical conservative wave has swept through many parts of the world, from the US to the UK to India. Slim recognized that it can be tempting to dismiss conservative nations, however,  the ICRC must find new ways of relating with conservative nations when it comes to international aid. In order to fulfil its mandate, the ICRC hopes to practice “humanitarian diplomacy” so as to find areas of ethical overlap between the principles of the Geneva Conventions and traditional conservative values. We need to “find a genuine humanitarian contract,” he argued. 

Changing Warfare

The security situation in 2019 is marked by several differences compared to 1949. To start, Slim explained, militaries as of the past few years have developed so-called “near peer conflict worries,” concerned about growing threats from fellow Great Power “peers” developing into another Great Power conflict. Such a conflict would change the field of humanitarian aid immensely. 

In addition, the ICRC has observed increased salience of coalition warfare, resulting in a complicated mix of states and armed groups as partners in armed conflicts. This has repercussions for the Geneva Conventions. Not all partners may be party to the treaty, leading to inconsistent adherence to IHL amongst coalitions themselves. The ICRC is currently working on an initiative to ensure IHL respect by all partners to a collation, Slim said, although it is not yet clear that it will succeed.

Lastly, the ICRC is paying close attention to the implications of the rise in urban warfare, which brings along with it particular worries about technology and the use of explosive weapons in densely populated areas. There are unique concerns to think about when a method of war may involve the ability to sabotage entire electrical grids or stop entire cities. In order to protect civilians, the ICRC has an initiative asking states to agree to a policy of non-use of explosive weapons in highly populated areas unless under real military necessity. 

Weapons old and new

The ICRC has had strong stances on the use of highly destructive weapons of war since its founding. Of the “old” weapons the ICRC has always, since 1945, advocated for the abolition of nuclear weapons. “There is no way to use a nuclear weapon which is in compliance with this book,” he noted, holding up his copy of the conventions. Just because they have been around for a while, we cannot let nuclear weapons slip into history, he added. The ICRC will maintain its anti-nuclear position.

New weapons, however, also need to be addressed. The ICRC is particularly concerned about digitalization, autonomy, artificial intelligence, and deep learning technologies, which have put weapons systems on “the cusp of a major revolution,” according to Slim. Great powers are in a technological arms race, and the unfortunate paradox of this is that no one wants to begin anti-proliferation negotiation until they have already become the proverbial “winner”; thus the present day finds us in an utter freeze of negotiations. For the ICRC, Slim described a present focus on ethical arguments, attempting to articulate what the proper use of these weapons would be. Slim sees the policy of maintaining human control as key to addressing future high tech weapons. 

Protracted Conflict and Fragility

Many conflicts today have been going on for decades, not to mention the continued effects felt from post colonization, he said. Short- and long-term work is important in protracted conflict. He believes the ICRC should stay aware of the nexus between humanitarian development and peace, along with the fact that this requires dedication to a multi-year investment so as to have “sustainable humanitarian impact.” 

Climate and Conflict

Slim noted that the ICRC sees a growing trend in the number of people who are dealing with simultaneously conflict and climate shocks. “What does it mean to live with both these profound risks at one time? What does this mean for ICRC’s actions?” he asked, and then noted the ICRC’s intent to green itself as an institution. 

People’s participation and a shift in humanitarian agency

Photo by Rowena Kosher.

Humanitarian aid has a history of a colonial mindset on the part of aid-givers to aid-receivers. Recognizing the ICRC’s complicity in this history, Slim articulated the need to change the grammar of aid. Rather than the patriarchal, patronizing “subject-verb-object” form of WE help YOU, humanitarian grammar must become more prepositional: “YOU are surviving, YOU are the subject of your lives, YOU are amazingly surviving with help from us.” This new approach, beyond grammar, is intersectional in intent, with the goal of giving more power to people in organizing and discussing what is best for them, rather than imposing assumed needs. 

In addition to participation from those receiving aid from ICRC, Slim noted that donors increasingly want a say in how their funds are distributed by the organization. Trust, which will be the main focus at the ICRC’s upcoming December conference in Geneva, takes on two forms: operational trust and accountability. The ICRC must find a balance between compliance systems and a principle of trust with its donors, remembering that at the heart of this relationship is risk-sharing. “If you want to be in the game of helping people,” Slim said, “you will have to risk something.” 

What does it matter that these trends be examined? How do the Geneva Conventions translate to today’s day and age? These are crucial questions that interrogate the philosophical, practical, and human implications of war. Despite the forward progression of time, war and violence remain as high as ever, though somewhat changed in modality and nature. Humanitarian aid remains necessary. The Geneva Conventions are certainly well-worn, but they are also a living document, requiring the constant re-investigation and re-interpretation by states, parties to conflict, and aid providers like the ICRC.

Period: End of Sentence Critical Panel: The Inconvenient, Bloody Truth Behind the Oscar-Winning Documentary

By: Laura Charney, RightsViews staff writer

On September 26, the Menstruation and Gender Justice Working Group hosted a film screening and critical panel on the Oscar-winning documentary short Period: End of Sentence. Moderated by Inga Winkler, lecturer at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University and Director of the working group, the panel included Shobita Parthasarathy, Professor of Public Policy and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, Lauren Houghton, Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, and Emily Hoppes, a consultant at Huru International.

Period: End of Sentence follows a group of Indian women in the rural Hapur district, 60 kilometers outside of Delhi, as they transition from a life of shame surrounding their periods toward establishing a self-sufficient microeconomy based on menstrual pad manufacturing. During the process, the documentary claims that girls and boys are educated, stigmas are shattered, and a new gender-equitable horizon ascends.

Period: End of Sentence is narrated as a story of empowerment and resilience. Centered on the catchphrase, “a period should end a sentence, not a girl’s education,” the Pad Project – the NGO that funded the film – elaborates on its website: “When a girl gets her period in the United States, she may miss a class. When a girl gets her period in a developing country, she may never go to school again.” While this notion certainly cements grounds for outrage, its accuracy is ambiguous at best. 

Menstrual health programming is often obscured by shoddy statistics, lack of thorough quantitative data, and approaches to international development that favor implementing behavioral changes based on generalized survey data. While the panelists agreed that it was exciting to see a film all about periods gain critical acclaim, they critiqued Period: End of Sentence on the basis of its reliance on unreliable research, perpetuation of harmful stereotypes, and iteration of a savior complex rooted in technical fixes.  

“Menstrual health management practices have become commodified, scalable, and packageable. The Times of India reports that only 12% of women in India use sanitary pads, while the rest use ‘shocking’ materials like rags. Allegedly, 23% of girls drop out of school when they begin menstruating. These statistics are baseless – we know nothing about how these studies were conducted. Yet they have enormous social power,” Professor Parthasarathy pointed out.

These oft-cited statistics that suggest that girls in developing countries miss schools because of their periods have been widely debunked.  The field of international development is rife with “zombie statistics” – statistics, often informed by questionable research, that become ubiquitous.

Even credible quantitative data can compress complex political and economic conditions that produce gender-based inequalities.  Often, the impulse to respond to complicated societal imbalances is with market-based solutions. This is particularly manifest in the language of “empowerment,” which posits that women and girls in the global south can manifest their own destiny through offering them skills and labor. Popular solutions in development thinking, such as microfinance loans, locates the solution to impoverished conditions with the individual, rather than with the structural drivers of inequalities, such as national debt or offshoring cheap labor. As a result, the burden of development is often transferred away from the governments and corporations that produce poverty, toward women and girls who become disproportionately responsible for their communities’ livelihoods. 

“There are no quick fixes, but the documentary makes it seem that way. The machine provides the fix,” Dr. Winkler said. 

Prior to the filmmaker’s team arriving in Hapur, the subjects of the film were generally unfamiliar with single-use pads, and instead, used cloth. The project started when a group of girls from a private high school in North Hollywood learned about a new pad-making machine, raised money through a Kickstarter to buy one, and installed it in a rural village. “The film states that rural India has a menstrual problem, and we have a solution. Yet it does not prove that it is a sustainable solution,” Dr. Houghton noted.

“Indigenous knowledge systems are automatically seen as backwards in ‘developing contexts,’ but there is evidence that the pads are low quality, there are issues with disposal, and the machines break down frequently,” Dr. Parasarathy added.

Introducing western technologies and products as the “solution” reveal both the seductions and limitations of global development thinking. Emily Hoppes, who works for an organization that provides reusable menstrual products and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education in Kenya, emphasized that products alone are not a sufficient solution to addressing stigma surrounding menstruation, and comprehensive sexuality education is necessary.

Indeed, the pad-making machine, for all its dexterous possibilities, can be understood as an outgrowth of what Dr. Parthasarathy calls “tech saviorism.” Tech saviorism “invites” the receiving subjects of an intervening technology to participate in economic development projects that are facilitated by others, and thus gives off the veneer of self-empowerment. According to this logic, before the introduction of these technologies, women were not already engaged in innovative practices. Instead, their previous practices are understood as embarrassing, dirty, and culturally oppressive. Yet in an era in which sustainable products loom large in menstrual product innovation, one would be remiss to dismiss the potential merits of reusable cloth.

Inga Winkler, Lauren Houghton, Emily Hoppes, and Shobita Parthasarathy (Left to right)

One scene in the film depicts several women saying that they could not pray in their temple while they were menstruating. Dr. Houghton, who has conducted extensive research in Bangladesh, the UK, and Mongolia on environmental risk factors on women’s health, noted that religion alone rarely dictates gender relations. For some women, observing menstrual practices can be seen as liberatory – a reprise from prayer or cooking for several days. 

The fault lines of the global north/south divide are manifest in the approach to menstrual health policies. “In the south, culture is often thought of as a barrier to menstrual health management,” Dr. Houghton said, “whereas in the north, the focus is on biochemical solutions, and culture is ignored. Yet turning the lens on ourselves, what does it say about our culture that we manage our periods with biochemical products?”

One panel attendee, Vanessa Siverls, a menstrual health consultant, pointed out that a major gap in the design of femtech and menstrual innovation is that it leaves behind menstruators who experience unique periods. Irregularities regarding menstruation are not merely a matter of the life course, but also depend on genetic makeups and socioeconomic contexts. Black women are more likely to experience uterine fibroids than women of other races, and more frequently report severe symptoms. Trans and nonbinary menstruators, too, are often left out of policy-based solutions and thus face unique challenges in managing periods in gender-segregated institutions like school bathrooms, shelters, or prisons.

There was one scene in particular that I felt spoke to the counterintuitive nature of the language of empowerment. The film takes us to the interior of a classroom, where we see adolescent girls and boys sitting patiently at their desks. The teacher asks one girl to stand and define “menstruation.” The girl reluctantly rises, hesitates and fumbles through a word or two, then is completely silent. She looks straight ahead, and you can feel her throat choking up with embarrassment as she eventually squeezes her eyes shut. As viewers, we’re called to look on with pity, to patronizingly empathize with the challenges of stigma and shame in a small, rural community; to want to help her empower herself.

I thought back to being a pre-teen girl growing up in Toronto, and how I would have felt if my teacher had asked me to stand in front of my whole grade and to explain what a period was. Because I was a bit of a loudmouth, I probably would have laughed and called on a friend to answer the question. Nonetheless, underneath my performative exterior, I would have been shaking, and mad at my teacher for putting me on the spot.

At the end of the documentary, Mr. Muruganantham, the inventor of the pad machine, says that “the strongest creature is not the lion, not the tiger, but the girl.” Orchestral instrumentation sweeps as the women, once vulnerable and timid, now laugh, hug, and discuss the power of feminism. A slow motion shot captures girls in a schoolyard doing long jump.  The spectacle of “girl power” is so overwhelming that I can’t help it when the hairs on the back of my neck slowly stand up: the product takes precedence over the process. In the end, don’t we all want a success story?

Hong Kong, The Women’s March, and #enough: Is Civil Resistance No Longer Effective?

By: Kyoko Thompson, Staff Writer at RightsViews

Anti-extradition bill protests in Hong Kong, 2019

Odds are that, if you follow the news, you’re aware of what’s happening in Hong Kong. The protests—which began in June as the result of a proposed extradition bill—have taken over the media of late, with citizens taking to the streets in unprecedented numbers. During one such a protest on June 17th, for example, an estimated 1.7 million people marched from Victoria Park to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council complex to demonstrate their desire to keep Hong Kong free and independent. With crowds like those, the Chinese government has certainly been paying attention,  yet after over a hundred days of protests, participants have yet to see definitive results in regards to their demands. Even worse, the sustained protests have led to deaths, injuries, and thousands of arrests, as well as incidents of police brutality

Civil resistance, as defined by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, is a powerful tool for people to fight for their rights without using violence. The Center writes,  “When people wage civil resistance, they use tactics such as strikes, boycotts, mass protests, and many other nonviolent actions to withdraw their cooperation from an oppressive system.” At the moment, levels of civil resistance have been climbing, signifying a global strategic trend. According to Dr. Erica Chenoweth of Harvard University, episodes of violent insurrections have been declining around the world since the 1960s, while unarmed demonstrations have risen almost exponentially. In fact, from 2010 to 2018, there were nearly double the number of nonviolent campaigns than there were from 1990 to 1999. 

At first glance, these statistics appear positive. After all, if more people are speaking up and opposing policies and regimes that they deem to be unjust or ruthless, but they aren’t doing it violently, wouldn’t that mean the world is becoming a better place? Not according to Dr. Chenoweth’s data. In fact, civil resistance is much less effective today than it was in the 20th century—and that, she explains, is its paradox.

On October 9th, Dr. Chenoweth visited Columbia’s School of International Affairs to talk about what she calls “The Paradox of Civil Resistance in the 21st Century” at The Eleventh Annual Kenneth N. Waltz Lecture in International Relations. Award-winning researcher, published author, and one of Foreign Policy magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2013, Dr. Chenoweth is a proven expert in the field of international relations and peace research. Using data collected from global incidents of resistance—237 violent and 270 nonviolent—from 1945 to 2006, she was able to distinguish the characteristics of successful and unsuccessful campaigns and draw conclusions as to why so many of them fail to achieve change; conclusions that, while fascinating, stand to discourage even the most civically minded individual. 

Why Nonviolent Resistance Has Succeeded in the Past

The United States we know today is what it is largely because of the civil resistance movements of the 1900s. The women’s suffrage movement, for example, gave women the right to vote nearly one hundred years ago. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s led to the desegregation of public facilities and schools across the country, the repeal of racially prejudicial laws, and the establishment of new ones to protect the civil liberties of all Americans. The Anti-War Movement, as well, pressured federal representatives to pull U.S. military forces out of Vietnam and abolish the draft in 1973. Indeed, civil resistance in the 20th century was a highly effective method to influence political reform in the United States. To better understand why civil resistance is no longer effectual in the 21st century, despite being more popular than ever, it is helpful to consider what made those earlier movements so successful in their time. 

In her lecture, Dr. Chenoweth explained that first of all, the probability of a campaign succeeding increases in proportion with its number of participants per capita. And, because people are less willing to risk harm via violence, nonviolent campaigns tend to be much larger than the average armed campaign—about eleven times larger, in fact. Large numbers mean a larger disruption, and the main function of civil resistance is to use so many people that an opponent—a corporation, organization, or government—can no longer rely on their support to function. This creates what Dr. Chenoweth calls a “crisis moment,” where people who are not directly involved in resistance are forced to rethink their interests (for instance, if a small business owner suddenly finds himself boycotted for refusing to employ people of color, he may feel obligated to change his policy not because he was emotionally swayed by the cause, but to avoid further financial loss). 

Given their size, it makes sense that so many of the political movements of the 20th century were successful at affecting behavior change. Consider the Iranian Revolution, which took place from 1978 to 1979. According to Charles Kurzman’s 2004 publication The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran, more than 10% of Iran’s total population participated in the December 1978 demonstrations that immediately precipitated the fall of the Iranian monarchy. The French Revolution, in contrast—a staple among historical revolutions and a symbol for the pursuit of freedom throughout the Western world—is estimated to have included only 1-2%. 

It isn’t just how many people are represented in a movement that makes it effective, however; it’s also who is represented. Movements in which women are equally represented, for example, are much more successful. “When there is gender parity…there is a much higher rate, or predictive probability, of success for that campaign,” explained Dr. Chenoweth. Unarmed participants are beneficial to a movement, as well; as when participants are unarmed, it is politically risky for a state to engage in acts of suppression. Recall the massacre at Kent State University, arguably the most pivotal moment of the entire anti-war movement of the 60s and 70s, where four unarmed college students were shot and killed by the Ohio National Guard. Acts like these—including police aggression—are seen as inhumane and unnecessary against unarmed civilians, and only serve to legitimize a movement, not quell one (conversely, they may be seen as justified against armed insurgents). This is part of the reason why nonviolent campaigns are particularly successful against repressive regimes; 26% more effective than their violent counterparts, according to Dr. Chenoweth’s data. 

What has changed in the past decade?

Although a select few mass protests, like the Women’s March, have occurred (pictured- a poster from the march), as a whole civil resistance is now characterized by multiple smaller movements, which decreases effectiveness

One aspect of the decreased effectiveness of civil resistance today compared to the 20th century is size. While the number of movements have certainly increased, the movements themselves are much smaller today than they used to be. There are some exceptions to this rule, such as the 2017 Women’s March—the largest demonstration in U.S. history—and the #enough school walkouts for better gun control in 2018. In general, however, demonstrations have shrunk in size. 

This may be counterintuitive, considering the perfusion of digitally driven activism encountered in social media and online. However, while a social media campaign may facilitate rapid mobilization, it does not sustain it. A video of police officers beating up a protester on Twitter may trigger throngs of people to take to the streets, but it lacks the daily church basement meetings and rigorous community preparation common to the movements of the 20th century. It also does not remove any pillars of support from the opponent, said Dr. Chenoweth, which would lend political influence to the movement. 

Dr. Chenoweth further argued that civil resistance is less resilient to repression than it once was because regimes have simply gotten better at repressing. Consider all the technological advancements of the last twenty years—the same innovations that brought us the iPhone 11 and Beats by Dre have also yielded tools that governments can use to surveil and promote their own agendas. Even more ominous is that tech companies and government agencies might actually be sharing best practices for suppressing nonviolent demonstrations with each other. In many ways, technological gains to states’ suppression tactics far outweigh any leverage movements may have garnered from the existence of social media platforms and police tracking apps. After all, what good is a hashtag when you’re fighting facial recognition software?

Resolving the paradox: does nonviolent resistance have a future?

The picture Dr. Chenoweth’s research paints may look a little bleak. It may even have you reconsidering attending the next political demonstration in your city. Given all of the above, it’s natural to question if and how civil resistance will ever regain its standing in the fight for rights, freedoms, and justice around the world. Is there any hope? Dr. Chenoweth thinks so; but only if you buy into the argument that there are things movements are doing differently today, or that something has fundamentally changed within our system. If you do, then you should take that into consideration when launching a campaign. 

Know that just because a movement is nonviolent does not mean it will be successful, but on the flip side, violent ones are even less so. Size may not guarantee success, either—the Women’s March didn’t significantly alter U.S. policy, and student walkouts didn’t tighten the government’s reins on gun control—but many votes are still better than one. Utilize social media, but don’t let it take the place of a good old-fashioned strategy—a hashtag may not disable facial recognition software, but a mask will certainly render it useless. And just as opponents share information on their methodology, so too must campaigns diffuse their knowledge; because building on the experience of others is a surefire way to improve your chances of success. 

When all else fails, though, don’t be discouraged. After all, the rights you enjoy today were borne on the backs of those that came before you. Civil resistance is not yet obsolete, and your opinion matters—no matter what the opposition says. So, pick up that sign, put on that pink hat, and get out there.

About the speaker: Dr. Erica Chenoweth teaches courses such as “Civil Resistance: How it Works” and “The Politics of Terrorism: Causes and Consequences from a Global Perspective” at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She co-founded the award-winning blog Political Violence @ a Glance and hosts Rational Insurgent. Her next book, Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know, comes out in 2020. To hear Dr. Chenoweth speak on this topic, check out her 2013 TEDx talk in Boulder, Colorado.

Columbia Community Internship Experiences in Human Rights: A Panel Discussion

By Jalileh Garcia, RightsViews staff writer

On October 2, undergraduate and graduate Columbia students gathered to share their summer experiences undertaking internships in the field of human rights. An annual panel  organized by the Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR), this serves as an opportunity for students to learn from each others’ experiences applying human rights in the field. The different panelists shared about their work environment, advice, and the skills that helped them flourish in the internships. 

Isabella Irtifa is a graduate student getting her Master’s Degree through the ISHR. She spent her summer in New York City interning for UN Women, more specifically with the Women Peace and Security Team. Here she was able to delve into transitional justice matters, as well as issues of women’s peace and security. Isabella drafted presentations on peace initiatives, women’s role in achieving security, and researched potential partnerships to increase women’s participation in decision-making. 

Ana Perez is also a graduate student getting her Master’s Degree through the ISHR. Like Isabella, she also interned at the UN, working with the United Nations Global Compact, an organization that functions through a non-binding pact to facilitate sustainability practices in businesses. Her responsibilities were shaped by the many shifts in her team. As such, she was in charge of logistics, agenda-setting, and facilitating meetings with stakeholders. She also worked on campaigns and event organizing to promote human rights practices in businesses. 

Claudia Laurel Bell worked in the United Nations in the Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration Unit in New York City. The unit’s work centers around facilitating negotiations with armed groups or non-state actors enacting state violence by giving them incentives to give up arms or leave voluntarily, and helping them reintegrate to civilian society. She was in the Middle East and North Africa Mission, though she was also assigned other peace missions in different geographical locations. Claudia was able to get to know the division well, as she was able to be involved in the recruitment process in the Unit. She was also able to go beyond administrative work by doing conflict analysis. Now, her research is being used by the Cameroonian Integrated Taskforce. 

Trisha Mukherjee is a junior at Columbia College who interned at the New Sanctuary Coalition (NSC) in New York City. The organization has two programs which consist of one, a weekly clinic where individuals could access free, pro-se legal help and two, an accompaniment program that aims to support individuals by providing accompaniment to ICE check-ins and/or court hearings. Here, Trisha was able to help individuals fill out legal documents, as well as witness and hold officials accountable for their behavior towards clients in legal proceedings. She also accompanied many individuals to their hearings, providing any necessary moral support for them in what can be highly stressful time. Trisha noted the emotional difficulty of her work, as it is very personal and hands-on. 

From left to right: Daniela Bernstein, Trisha Mukherjee, Claudia Laurel Bell, Ana Perez, Isabella Irtifa

Daniela Bernstein is an undergraduate student in the School of General Studies who interned at the New York City Commission on Human Rights, a subset of the Mayor’s office. The Commission ensures that if a person’s rights have been infringed, they investigate it impartially. If the Commission finds that people’s rights have been violated, it supports individuals in the legal process to redress these violations. Daniela did intake, interviewed clients, and drafted memorandums and complaints for the Commission. 

Noura Birkle is a student in the Masters Program of the ISHR. She took part in the Student Volunteers Program run by the ISHR. Through the program, she was able to volunteer for the Aid Health Foundation in Mexico City, Mexico and learn about the inner workings of the organization. Noura translated for journalists in an event hosted by the Aid Health Foundation. Furthermore, Noura was also able to travel to the Guatemala-Mexico border and learn about HIV issues amongst the migrant population. 

The panelists found their internships through a variety of different avenues. Some applied on the UN database, others googled specific organizations they knew worked with women’s rights or human rights in New York City, while others had already established connections with the organizations through prior volunteering. 

All of the panelists recommended to the audience to spend time researching an organization prior to applying.  “Ask questions,” they stated. Organizations want to see that individuals are interested in the work that they are doing. Some of the panelists also stressed the importance of critical thinking and language skills.  One of the panelists also recommended students to intern abroad, if one had the resources and ability to do it. 

The panel ended with the some of the panelists encouraging the attendees to explore new things and to be open to the possibilities of different human rights careers. There are countless ways to support and defend human rights, from working at the UN as some students did to entering the legal field to compiling research. Exploration of these possibilities can open doors and interests that one did not even know existed. 

As a student who also undertook an internship in the field of human rights this past summer, the implication is that one’s work goes beyond one self 一 or at least it should. Although as workers in human rights field we shouldn’t neglect to take care of ourselves, it is important to remember that the efforts we are undertaking have the probability of impacting the lives of many others. As such, human rights should be participatory and inclusive, and put the needs of those we are supporting and defending before all else. Ultimately, we are facilitators in others’ lived realities. Our impact extends far beyond personal professional accomplishment. 

Columbia students’ internships in human rights are an incredible backbone to explore the field, get experience, and support the fight for human rights globally.    

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