Archive for International

Art/Law and Human Rights: Dialogues on Being Human

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taming the Bull: Can Global Finance ‘Save’ Human Rights?

by Genevieve Zingg, editor of RightsViews and a M.A. student in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University

The global financial system has long had a public image problem.

In the United States, Wall Street has become virtually synonymous with greed, power, and ruthlessness, a reputation turned into American lore by a long line of iconic films and insider tales. From the eponymous “Wall Street” starring Michael Douglas in 1987 to Leonardo DiCaprio’s 2013 role as Jordan Belfort in “The Wolf of Wall Street” and the dark story behind the 2008 financial collapse in “The Big Short,” finance has been cast as the epicenter for the self-interested and corrupt.  

David Kinley, chair in Human Rights Law at the University of Sydney, however, sees an opportunity to leverage Wall Street, and its international counterparts in London, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Geneva for the benefit of international human rights and social justice, a chance for finance to shed its bad reputation and become a positive force for socioeconomic impact.

Kinley, an expert member of high-profile London law firm Doughty Street Chambers, spoke at Columbia University in March about his new book, “Necessary Evil: How to Fix Finance by Saving Human Rights.” The book, a ten-year project aimed at bridging the gap between finance and human rights, argues that there is an unavoidable relationship between the two sectors.

David Kinley, chair in Human Rights Law at the University of Sydney, spoke at Columbia University in March. // Genevieve Zingg

Noting a lack of existing scholarship to investigate the intersectional scope between finance and human rights, Kinley says he deliberately chose a broad and accessible lens to kick off the conversation. Human rights, for instance, are defined in the book not according to technical legal instruments and international agreements but by our day-to-day understanding of the term: simply those things that give people dignity, respect, security and equality within a given community.

Citing the drop in global poverty over the last 30 years, Kinley emphasized that his critique of finance is not a rebuke of capitalism as a whole. Capitalism is to a large degree responsible for many positive economic effects, including overall increases in aggregate and global wealth.

“I’m not trying to say, let’s erase the capitalist system,” Kinley said, “but I do think its sharp edges can be dulled. It has become introspective, concerned with its own indicia of success rather than having a consciousness or awareness of its impacts outside finance itself.”

As the sole sector necessary for every other sector, human rights included, finance is in a unique position. However, it is precisely this exceptionalism that has rendered finance a dangerous purveyor of political power.

“There’s a revolving door between Wall Street and K Street,” Kinley said, referring to a corridor of top lobbying firms in Washington, D.C. “This is the same in all financial centers of power. You want the SEC and other watchdogs to know how the system works, but if they come from within, they may start to become protectors rather than scrutinizers of the system.”

He pointed to the recent appointment of Jerome Powell to head the Federal Reserve. Powell joins a growing roster of former Goldman Sachs attorneys and executives appointed to key U.S. economic policy positions. Despite campaign promises to “drain the swamp,” President Donald Trump has stacked his administration with a bevy of Goldman Sachs bankers. The list includes Steven Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs partner and current Treasury Secretary; Eric Ueland, a former Goldman Sachs lobbyist, now the Under Secretary of State; Gary Cohn, Trump’s top economic adviser; John Clayton, a lawyer who advised Goldman Sachs during the 2008 bailouts, now the chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC); and Steven Peikin, another former Goldman Sachs attorney, now one of two directors of the SEC enforcement division.

Wall Street has become virtually synonymous with greed, power, and ruthlessness, a reputation turned into American lore. // Photo by DFLORIAN1980 // Flickr

Perhaps the only thing worse than being ensnared by the unavoidable tentacles of the financial system, Kinley continued, is being excluded from it. However, he argues that the growing use of microcredit, microfinance and mobile money are slowly increasing financial inclusion among those previously left outside the system.

“I’ve just come back from Nepal, and everyone there owns a mobile phone— which allows you to have mobile money. People may be overcharged for it, but they will still go for it because they believe in themselves and their ability to break out of the cycle of poverty,” he said.

Overcharging is just one of many criticisms leveled at the microfinance industry like any practice, it is not without its risks. Predatory loan sharks reportedly thrive among microfinance initiatives in the developing world, and some studies find that overindebtedness can leave poor people more desperate than they were before. 

The talk at Columbia University focused on at bridging the gap between finance and human rights. // Genevieve Zingg

Joel Moser, founder and Chief Executive Officer of AQM Capital LLC and an adjunct professor at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, defended the essence and objective of Wall Street. “It facilitates the movement of money so that companies can get started, so that Columbia can borrow money to build a new medical center, so a government can borrow to build water treatment centers,” he said.

Moser argued that there is nothing fundamentally evil about the system itself, nor is there anything wrong with people wanting to make money— as John Locke said, a central freedom of democracy is the pursuit of money. “There are evil actors, but there are evil actors everywhere,” Moser added.

Like Kinley, he pointed to the political side of finance as the sector’s major fault, pushing against the idea that human rights issues evolve from Wall Street itself. “It’s an issue of enforcement and regulation. When you have the Street controlling the government, that’s the problem, and that’s a problem with democracy,” he said, pointing to the National Rifle Association (NRA) as a pertinent example of lobby groups leveraging their political power to manipulate the very regulations meant to control them. The NRA’s influence on Capitol Hill is undeniable: of the 535 current members of Congress in both the House and the Senate, 307 have received direct or indirect financial contributions from the NRA. Similarly, the finance lobby spent a whopping $2 billion on political activity between 2015 and 2016. 

All this money can, of course, be used to drive human rights forward. Daniel Berezowsky, a second year student in SIPA’s Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy concentration, argued that finance is beginning to look beyond philanthropy to drive social impact. He pointed to the recent precedent of LGBT rights being embedded into World Bank loans, creating a significant incentive for human rights compliance even in countries firmly opposed to recognizing its LGBT members and communities. In 2014, for example, the World Bank blocked a $90 million loan to Uganda on the basis of its draconian anti-LGBT laws, the first time a loan was explicitly tied to the rights of sexual minorities.

The event was one of the first of many collaborations between the Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy and International Finance and Economic Policy concentrations. // Genevieve Zingg

Majda Radovanovic, a first year student in SIPA’s International Finance and Economic Policy program, argued that human rights have as much practical weight as they do moral or ethical. Like Warren Buffet’s classic principle— good practices pay off in the long run— there is increasing evidence that Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) factors offer investors long-term performance advantages.

The most important issue is figuring out specific, concrete steps that can better fuse human rights and finance. “The broad, open-ended gist of human rights doesn’t help advocates be taken seriously by finance,” Kinley said. “Human rights are aspirational hopes of the most divine kind, but lack real steps describing how you achieve these goals— we need to drill it down to what it means in the specific context of finance.”

Radovanovic pointed out that unmet human rights needs may arise because the sector is simply unequipped to identify and address them. A potential partnership opportunity between government, human rights experts and the financial sector might help provide the missing education and information to fill this crucial gap, she said.

Joanne Bauer, who teaches business and human rights at SIPA and moderated the discussion, sees SIPA as an ideal place for productive collaboration between finance and human rights professionals given its expertise in both fields. She suggests that this event, a co-sponsorship between SIPA’s Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy and International Finance and Economic Policy concentrations, will be the first of many collaborations focusing on finance and human rights as tools for the promotion of corporate accountability.

“If we continue to oppose the bull, we’ll just be run over,” Berezowsky mused, in reference to the “Fearless Girl” boldly staring down the Charging Bull of Wall Street. “We need to learn to tame the bull, and use it for purposes that benefit human rights as well as finance.”

 

 

 

Genevieve Zingg is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University, focusing on human rights in the context of armed conflict, counterterrorism and national security. She is interested in refugees and migration, foreign policy and international politics, international criminal and humanitarian law, and intersectional issues of race and gender. She holds a B.A. (Hons.) from the University of Toronto and has professional experience working in Geneva, Athens, Paris, Brussels and Toronto. Connect with her on Twitter @GenZingg. She is editor of RightsViews. 

The Politics of Search and Rescue Operations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Does the Israeli High Court Uphold Palestinian Rights?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom of Expression Under Threat

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impossible Harms: A Conversation on Genocide Education and Prevention

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

Genocide, or the intentional killing, in whole or in part, of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group of individuals, has occurred throughout world history and occurs even today. On November 30, students, professors and human rights scholars gathered in Pupin Hall at Columbia University for a discussion with Henry Theriault from Worcester University about the crime of genocide, the gravest of human rights violations.

Theriault, the president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, has devoted his career to genocide studies, traveling the world speaking about and researching the topic. He was joined by Eylem Delikanli, an ISHR oral historian studying traumatic memory at Columbia University, and Marc Mamigonian, the director of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research, who moderated the conversation. The event was co-hosted by the Armenian Society of Columbia University, and the discussion took place within the context of the Armenian Genocide, which occurred over 30 years in advance of the United Nations Genocide Convention.

On November 30, students and human rights scholars gathered at Columbia Unviersity for a discussion with Henry Theriault about the crime of genocide. // Rowena Kosher

The Armenian Genocide, from 1915 to 1923, remains one of the most well-known incidents of genocide in the world, when over 1.5 million Armenians were murdered by the Ottoman government. It is also one of the most controversial: Even today, the government of the Republic of Turkey, the successor to the Ottoman government, and several other countries, deny the use of the word “genocide” to describe the atrocities committed and lives taken.

Theriault began the conversation in response to a question about the relationship between education and genocide prevention. In his opinion, research and education has the immense potential to lead to prevention, but it also has many flaws. While he articulated that genocide awareness has massively increased in recent years and that “people are aware” and  “have the framework” to interpret these violations, increased awareness also paradoxically increases denial. The more people recognize the horrors and human rights violations that have or are occurring, the more they turn away from it. The Armenian Genocide, for example, has only been officially accepted as “real” by 29 countries and 48 U.S. states. “Denial is a very powerful phenomenon,” said Theriault. “It’s not just an issue of genocide… it’s an issue of all sorts of things that vested powerful interests don’t want to address.” Contrary to the belief that more knowledge means embracing the truth, when it comes to genocide, our knowledge can stimulate the opposite effect. “It’s staying with the truth that’s difficult,” he said.

The genocide conversation was co-hosted by the Armenian Society of Columbia University. // Rowena Kosher

To deal with denial, Theriault says we must think critically, especially in an “information age,” where we have immediate access to all sorts of opinions and opposition. People like to think the truth is what they want it to be: with so many opinions and resources available at the touch of a button, people can access information to support whatever belief they have, no matter how obscure. We can’t let denial set the agenda, he said. This involves talking about other important parts of human rights prevention, rather than spending half an hour debating whether or not the Armenian genocide even happened.

Returning to the question of prevention, Theriault offered a critique: advocates are approaching prevention in much too simplistic ways. We must remember that genocide is a product of both global and societal forces. To lean on techniques such as military prevention can just cause more violence and human rights violations. “Prevention is about changing deep political dynamics,” he said. “The situation we are currently in is the product of hundreds of years of genocide, colonialism, racism.”

Marc Monagonian questioned the implications of the new “America first” approach to the world under the Trump administration and its effectiveness in preventing genocide. In response, Theriault articulated that in the contemporary world, “the idea that we can disengage is impossible.” While there was hope for the progression of human rights under Presidents Bush and Obama, under the Trump administration we have returned to a pre-modern rhetoric in which the United States is claiming that it is so privileged it is no longer morally obligated to people. “We’re saying that we have no obligation to even respect their rights,” he said.

The conversation turned to the current treatment of immigrants in the United States as an example. This treatment makes it seem as if they have no rights because they have no documents. It is a scary way of thinking and even a part of the complex formula that leads to genocide, said Theriault. “Just because you do something wrong doesn’t mean you lose all of your rights… that you’re not people who have rights.”

People visit the Armenian genocide monument and lay flowers around the eternal flame. // Rita Willaert // Flickr

The panelists agreed that it becomes very easy to sit back and think that mass violence is far off, but even small things like racist comments are steps toward genocide. It is a process of normalization: once a small step is taken, it gets normalized until the next step is taken and becomes the norm, until eventually the norm becomes violence. With education, Theriault notes, things have started to change significantly in the United States, especially generationally. Education can be the most effective response to rhetoric that dehumanizes people, but it is a long-term process.
Advocates right now are facing a real threat, especially because the openness of discussion of the past decade has been replaced with retrenchment and backtracked progress. Activism nowadays will not be easy, the panelists said. The many electronic petitions that circulate around the internet are an incredibly easy and rewarding way to feel like you have made a difference, for example. Theriault admitted he even signs about ten a month. Yet, he pointed out the fallacy in push-button activism: It’s easy. “If it’s easy, then it’s probably not doing too much,” he said.

Where can we go from here? It is clear that human rights scholars face serious challenges. Scholars must tackle denial, the proliferation of information on the internet, deeply-rooted cultural opinions, and a right-wing shift to anti-human rights rhetoric. Theriault, a professor himself, believes in education to lay the groundwork for progress in the future. He feels strongly that the most important thing is to keep talking about these issues to ensure that lives taken by genocide are not ignored. Columbia University, as an educational institution itself, has an important role in human rights education. With ISHR, the resources to invite individuals like Theriault to speak, and many students eager to change the world, there is a platform and opportunity for resistance against anti-human rights rhetoric. Events like this one are just a small example of what the university can do to tackle genocide and human rights violations and prepare its students to be the next generation of advocates.

Rowena Kosher is an undergraduate student at Columbia University School of General Studies. She plans to major in human rights with a possible focus on gender and sexuality studies. Her writing can be found on her personal blog, fromvermiliontoviolet.wordpress.com, and at elephantjournal.com, where she is an occasional contributor. To contact Rowena, feel free to email her at rbk2141@columbia.edu.

The Future of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

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

On November 20, students, professors and human rights colleagues gathered in Columbia Law School’s Jerome Greene Hall for a discussion on economic, social and cultural rights led by Catarina de Albuquerque, the former United Nations special rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation.

Originally from Portugal, de Albuquerque began her career in human rights as part of the Portuguese Foreign Service, moving on to become the chairperson-rapporteur for negotiation of the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a protocol adopted in 2008 that establishes an individual complaints mechanism to recognize important rights like the right to education, the right to health, and labour rights, among others. Following these positions, de Albuquerque took on her current role as executive chair of the Sanitation and Water for All Partnership, a global partnership to catalyze political action, improve accountability and use scarce resources more effectively. However, her presentation wasn’t about her work so much as it was about how she accomplished what she has and the roles individuals in the human rights field, universities, and government can take to progressively defend economic, social and cultural rights.

Catarina de Albuquerque, the former United Nations special rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation, speaks at Columbia Law School in November. // Rowena Kosher

To de Albuquerque, it is necessaryif not obligatoryfor professionals within the human rights field to bring human rights out from the law books and into the public sphere, bridging sectoral divides and incorporating corporations and lay individuals into conversations about economic, social and cultural rights, rights which continue to grow in importance and recognition due to increasing inequality.

“The human rights community has an element of responsibility when looking at what’s happening nowadays to human rights,” de Albuquerque said. “Our language is often legalistic. We speak with a certain arrogance about human rights and about things that for us are a given…We don’t take the time and the energy to translate these concepts to the wider world.”

Why is this an important method? Because “if we don’t leave our comfort zone, if we don’t start preaching to the unconverted, this will never happen,” she added. Human rights ought to be translated into a language accessible and appealing to all people, incorporating them so that they may recognize the implications of their actions as individuals or businesses on the state of economic, social and cultural rights.

De Albuquerque further explained the challenges that she faced as a young woman when she started her career, such as how she was often doubted by her male colleagues. During her first job as the chairperson-rapporteur for the Optional Protocol to the Social Covenant in Geneva, for example, de Albuquerque described how she was often treated with less respect because she was a woman. This included discrimination when she postponed a session because she had only recently given birth a month prior. Reflecting on how she overcame this, she said that she simply didn’t react at all. She “just kept swimming,” she said. Her ability to be non-reactive allowed her to build rapport with individuals on all sides of the debate to make economic, social and cultural rights a reality.

Whether acting as a chairperson in Geneva or not, she believes that human rights scholars need to take a leading role in disseminating knowledge beyond the walls of the university, especially when it comes to these other essential rights. Often rights like the right to food, water, and education get put to the wayside over the more “scary” civil and political violations like torture, she said. While these rights are intrinsically intertwined with political and civil rights—rights protected by their own international treaties—scholars are urged not forget to fight for economic, social and cultural rights as well.   

Catarina de Albuquerque discussed the role of Columbia students in the future of economic, social and cultural rights. // Rowena Kosher

Positive change for these rights can only happen with cooperation between all sectors of society, according to de Albuquerque. Often, she said, in order for businesses or non-profits to meet certain statistics to continue to be funded, they focus their efforts on larger groups of individuals, groups which are often not the ones that need the rights the most. Inadvertently, this can lead to even more inequality between marginalized groups not considered “worth” the time and funds and the larger, often less needy groups that help reach quotas.

Moving forward, de Albuquerque believes that people, especially young people like those at Columbia, need to be the voices reminding the world of economic, social and cultural rights. While it could be frustrating work, young individuals have the tenacity to overcome these frustrations, de Albuquerque said. She urged her audience to take action: not just to work in litigation but to do litigation; not just to work with a campaign but to do campaigning. This could even mean action on a micro level as de Albuquerque does when she talks to her taxi driver about human rights, embarrassing her kids in the process but “reaching another mind” as well.

The discussion ended with a call to universities like Columbia. “Bring in the Trojan Horses,” she said, referring to the people like her who are speaking for economic, social and cultural rights. Make these rights known, educate, and take action, she said. In these ways, human rights defenders can leave the walls of scholarship and make human rights knowledge accessible for all. That is what will lead to change.

Rowena Kosher is an undergraduate student at Columbia University School of General Studies. She plans to major in human rights with a possible focus on gender and sexuality studies. Her writing can be found on her personal blog, fromvermiliontoviolet.wordpress.com, and at elephantjournal.com, where she is an occasional contributor. To contact Rowena, feel free to email her at rbk2141@columbia.edu.