Archive for Region

Manufacturing Citizenship : The Ongoing Movement Against Citizenship Amendment Bill in Northeast India

The following is an opinion piece authored by ISHR visiting scholar and activist, Binalakshmi Nepram.


“When you single out any particular group of people for secondary citizenship status, that’s a violation of basic human rights” ~ Jimmy Carter, Former US President & Nobel Peace Laureate

History show us that in the 1500s, an estimated 10 million plus Indigenous people lived on land now known as the United States of America (US). In 1830, the US passed the Federal Indian Removal Act, which forced thousands of Indigenous people out of their homelands. For hundreds of years, conflicts with colonizers, introduction of diseases, atrocities and discriminatory policies devastated the Indigenous People of North America. It is estimated that over 9 million Indigenous People died during this time. In the present day, many Indigenous Peoples in the US now live in areas designated as “Reservations.”

The story of what happened to Indigenous People in the US is the story which many Indigenous People living in what is currently known as “Northeast Region of India” are now facing–a fear of becoming outsiders on their own land.

Protesters against the Citizenship Amendment Bill

Recently, the Indigenous areas of the Northeast Region of India were rocked by a series of protests over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill that was tabled in the Indian Parliament on January 8, 2019 by the BJP Government of India. The region with the highest concentration of protests against the bill is inhabited by 272 Indigenous communities speaking over 400 languages. It is also home to one of Asia’s longest running armed conflicts. 

On top of seven decades of violence, the Indigenous peoples of Northeast Region of India are wary of the newly minted Citizenship Amendment Bill as the Bill sets to amend the Indian Citizenship Act of 1955 to make it illegal for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan eligible for Indian citizenship. The Bill also reduces the 11 year requirement of citizenship to 6 years. Sources say that 2 million people (20 lakhs), mostly belonging to the Hindu religion from three countries could potentially be granted Indian citizenship as a result of this. 

At around the same time, another initiative has been taking place in Assam, Northeast India called the “National Register of Citizens” (NRC). The NRC is a list of  all Indian citizens of Assam. A Supreme Court order in 2013 began its process of implementation. Under this initiative, around 4 million people (40 lakhs) in the state were found to be stateless and without a nation due to lack of proper documentation that could prove their citizenship. Most of them were of Muslim faith.

Due to the above factors, there is fear that the Indigenous People of Northeast India who are living in Assam may suffer as a result of the huge influx of migrants. The partition of Bengal in 1947 changed the demography of Tripura. In two decades, the Indigenous People of Tripura were reduced to a minority. The percentage of Indigenous Peoples in Tripura declined from 64% in 1874 to 28% in 1981. Migrants, constituting 70% of the population now decide politics, rather than Indigenous Peoples who have become minorities. Indigenous Peoples who have begun protesting have been met with violence. Recently, Tripura state police forces belonging to the dominant population shot at unarmed Indigenous students protesting the Citizenship Amendment Bill.

A group of women protesters in Northeast India

A closer study of the histories of the world show that what is currently being attempted in India with Citizenship Amendment Bill has also been done in other parts of the world. Take the case of “Project IC,” which is the name used to describe the allegation of systematic granting of citizenship to immigrants in the state Sabah, Malaysia. Sabah was a multiracial state with no clear majority race. Some claim the government’s aim with this “Project” was to alter the demographic pattern of Sabah to make it favorable to the ruling government and certain political parties by changing the electoral voting patterns. 

The project reportedly began around the 1990s. Some years later, the population of the Kadazan-Dusun Peoples was reduced to 17% while non-citizens rose to 25%.  It was reported that Harris Salleh, a political leader, admitted to planning to change the demography of Sabah in favor of a specific religious community. During the Royal Commission of Inquiry on Illegal Immigrants in Sabah in 2013, Harris Salleh justified his actions by stating that the granting of citizenship to refugees was done per the Federal Constitution. He further stated that Malaysia’s first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman had announced in the 1970s that certain refugees belonging to a certain “religious” group could stay in Malaysia.  

There are many parallels between the Northeast Indian introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Bill and others  that have been introduced historically around the globe, such as the United States Indian Removal Act of 1830 “Project IC” in Malaysia and the population engineering that happened in Tripura. 

 The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that States must obtain the pre, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples before making any political changes that will affect them. The Citizenship Amendment Bill would affect the cultural and linguistic existence of the Indigenous peoples of the region. However, although 90% of the current population of Northeast India is Indigenous, India has yet to sign the Declaration to demonstrate their commitment to protect the Northeast Peoples. India also has not signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which is a binding international agreement enforceable by states and the International community. 

It is likely that the Citizenship Amendment bill would create politically motivated divisions between the communities, regions, and ethnic groups of India, rather than focus on listening to the many concerns and voices of the people residing in the territory.

The people of the Northeast Region are diverse. They speak multiple languages, have multiple histories, struggles and religions. The concerned peoples of the Northeast Region continue to protest the Bill with the hopes that the Indian Government will recognize the serious issues it raises. 


By Binalakshmi Nepram

Binalakshmi (Bina) Nepram is an internationally renowned award winning scholar and activist who was a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University’s Institute for Study of Human Rights 2017-2018. Nepram is the founder of Manipur Women Gun Survivor Network and Northeast India Women Initiative for Peace and currently convener of The Global Alliance on Indigenous Peoples, Gender Justice and Peace. She was recently awarded 2018 Anna Politskovaya Award along with Nobel Laureate from Belarus, Svetlana Alexievich 

FGM- A Human Rights Issue?

As awareness of female genital mutilation (FGM) grows in the United States, activists are increasingly trying to reframe the practice as a Human Rights issue. That was the message Maryum Saifee, Aissata Camara, Maryah Haidery, and Shelby Quast passionately imparted when they spoke to a packed room of Columbia students and community members last week.

According to the World Health Organization, FGM includes “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” The practice, which takes many forms, is done to control women’s sexuality, has zero health benefits, and can lead to lifelong health issues, including increased risk during childbirth, trauma, and even death. While FGM is more common in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, it is also practiced in North America, Europe, Latin America and Oceania. The WHO estimates that over 200 million women around the world have been cut.

While FGM has been practiced for centuries, there has recently been a renewed interest in the issue in the United States. In 2017, a federal prosecutor in Michigan brought charges, using a 1996 law passed by congress banning FGM, against two doctors and a clinic manager for performing the practice on at least seven girls. After hearing the arguments, the judge ruled that the Federal law banning FGM was unconstitutional because congress did not have the power to make the law in the first place. The case will be brought to a higher court later this year.

Shelby Quast is America’s Director of Equality Now, an NGO that strives for gender equality, and has been involved in the case. She says that while she was disappointed with the judge’s ruling, “the case brought media attention. It’s not just happening ‘over there’, it’s here too. The case has allowed survivors to elevate their platform, and it’s not over yet.”

One of the main themes the activists spoke to was their effort to re-frame the issue. For too long FGM has been thought of as a cultural practice or a medical issue, and as a consequence many human rights groups have avoided taking up the cause. Maryum Saifee, a SIPA alumni, FGM survivor, and career diplomat with the US Foreign Service, urged those gathered to think about the issue more as a form of gender-based violence or as a part of the Me Too movement. “When people ask if we should prosecute the doctor or those involved” she said, “I think, ‘if this were incest, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.’”

Maryah Haidery is an activist, a survivor of FGM, and a member of the Sahiyo organization which seeks to end the practice among the Dawoodi Bohra community of Western India. She said some activists are reluctant to take up the issue because they are afraid it would offend Islamic religious leaders, who are, incorrectly, assumed to be the perpetrators of the practice. However, as she, pointed out, FGM is not condoned by the Qu’ran, and despite popular belief, there are numerous religious decrees by learned Imams denouncing the practice.  “Human rights must apply to all humans,” she said, “not just those in the West.”

While the activists all spoke to the need for a wider conversation about FGM, they also warned against the inclusion of anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant messages in the struggle. “We don’t want a backlash against our community,” said Haidery. “That’s one reason I was reluctant to speak out at first. These are our mothers, they are not monsters.”

Part of the problem is that FGM is still thought of as something that only happens in Africa and Asia, but in fact over 500,000 women in the United States are thought to have undergone the practice or at risk of being cut. “It was treated as an African issue, but it is not just Africa, it is a global issue,” Aissata Camara, the co-founder and executive vice president of the There Is No Limit foundation and FGM survivor, pointed out. “FGM affects black women, brown women, white women, rich women, poor women, Muslim women, Christian women, immigrant women – everyone is affected.”

As an example, the speakers pointed to Rene Bergstrom, who was three years old when a Christian doctor in the American mid-west removed her clitoris. As she recently wrote in The Guardian, “I witnessed Christian religions declaring masturbation a sin, some Christian leaders and doctors recommending circumcision to prevent it, physicians carrying out the practice and our American culture first accepting this form of sexual abuse and then denying it ever occurred.” While reliable data is hard to come by, it is likely that some other white American women have also undergone the process.

Looking to the future, the speakers all highlighted the importance of good laws. “Laws can bring the issue to the fore and puts it under the spotlight where it becomes much harder to defend,” explain Quast. “But it’s also very important that the laws work for the communities involved instead of targeting them.” Haidery revealed that in her conversations with mothers in the Dawoodi Bohra community many say privately they don’t want their daughters to be cut, but it is instead communal pressure that leads them to go through with the process. “Having a law against it gives these women an out,” she says. “They can just say, ‘I wish I could have my daughter cut, but I don’t want to go to jail.’”

There is still much to be done when it comes to ending the practice of FGM. Towards the end of the conversation, the activists urged audience members to educate themselves on the issue and pursue creative solutions. Camara mentioned she was working with salon owners and make-up artists to come up with ways to bring the issue up with their clients. “Knowledge is power,” she says. “Educate yourself. Break the silence. Find your talent, and join in.”


By James Courtright, RightsViews Staff Writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By Rowena Kosher, RightsViews Editor

The State of International Migration

An increase of migration in recent years has spurred a global conversation that asks: what is the responsibility of countries, particularly democracies, toward migrants? Relevant discussions have had real consequences on-the-ground for both migrants and states, leading to legislation which has had positive effects, and also to massive human rights violations. I examine the broad movements in worldwide migration in the past few years and pull out important themes which can be gleaned from global happenings.

The State of International Migration

According to the UN’s International Migration Report released on December 18, 2017, there has been an increase in people moving away from their country of birth by 49% since the start of the 21st century. Yet according to the 2018 World Migration Report published by the IOM, this increase in migration remains comparable to the world population; the scale of growth remains stable in regard to population.

A greater number of international migrants are moving into OECD countries to live permanently, part of a trend tracked by UN DESA. In contrast, 2017 saw refugees and asylum seekers predominately living in low- to middle-income countries, with only 16% residing in high-income countries. Thus, although high-income countries did host a majority (64%) of international migrants in 2017, with the United States hosting the largest number per country at 19% of the total, high-income countries are on average accepting the fewest number of refugees and asylees.

Despite this low acceptance rate, the need for host countries to accept refugees and asylees has increased, with the highest number of refugees recorded 22.5 million refugees and another 2.8 million awaiting adjudication of their asylum claims at the end of 2016. Since then, this number has increased to 25.4 million in 2018 because of the conflicts in Syria and Venezuela.

Migration in State Politics

According to a Yale study, in recent years nationalism, populism, and/or identity politics have led to a rise in conservative policies across Europe and in the United States, especially in the areas of immigration, affirmative action, police and criminal justice. A BBC report further showed that political parties associated with nationalism and the far-right have gathered greater support mainly due to tension around national identity and globalization. The five countries highlighted by the report with the most votes for a nationalist party include Switzerland (29%), Austria (26%), Denmark (21%), Hungary (19%), and Finland (18%). In one poignant example of how powerful these sentiments are, anti-immigration was cited as the most fundamental motivation behind Brexit by 88% of people in the UK.  In Denmark’s case, in August 2018 the country instituted a ban on face coverings, intended to prevent Muslim women from wearing the niqab or burqa. Other European countries with this ban include Belgium, Austria, France, the Netherlands, and Bulgaria. Other countries which instituted anti-immigrant legislation within the last few years include the U.S. with its 2017 move to drop the ceiling for admitting refugees from 110,000 to 50,000 (and then further reducing admissions to 45,000 for 2018); in June 2018, Hungary instituted a “Stop Soros” law intending to criminalize anyone offering aid to migrants without legal status. Then, in September of 2018, Italy increased the ease at which it could deport migrants and suspend asylum applications for individuals deemed “socially dangerous” or with any criminal history. As evident in these cases, anti-immigrant sentiment no longer exists solely in conversation and political rhetoric, but now has a strong presence in policy with real implications for migrant and refugee communities.

What’s Behind the Backlash?

At the heart of anti-immigrant sentiment is a basic fear of outsiders, which is propagated by misinformation. According to a study sponsored by the National Bureau of Economic Research, native-born citizens across the world believe that 1) there are far more immigrants in their country than in reality, 2) immigrants are more culturally and religiously different than native-born citizens, and 3) immigrants have less education, are less likely to become employed, less financially stable, and rely in greater numbers on government aid, than native-born citizens. In addition, immigrants and especially those from lower-income countries have been politically problematized and put forth as a “new” issue which requires expansive and lightning-quick responses by power-grabbing governments. Yet in the example of the United States, this is proven to be false: the U.S. hosts almost three times the number of immigrants than it did in 1970, yet it still has fewer than the 9.2 million immigrants who lived in the U.S. in 1890. The problem is evidently more one of perception. For example, in the European countries that have instituted bans on face veils, only a minute percentage of women in these countries actually wear such attire. The bans, then, are a symptom of Islamophobia and a fear of losing grasp of vaguely-defined European identity. In the previously mentioned Yale study, the authors, Craig, Rucker, and Richeson advise their readers that the core issue behind increasing conservative policies in the U.S. is an identity threat felt by “White (Christian) Americans” who are afraid of losing the status and privilege lent to them in American society by these identity factors. Fundamentally, there is a looming fear that some essential part of national identity is at risk. This fear has led countries to rush to to protect borders, as made evident in President Trump’s obsession with building a wall.

The International Responsibility of States

Much of the anti-immigration legislation is in violation of international refugee policies, which, according to the 1951 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, mandate that states must process asylum applications of persons who enter the border. States have a responsibility to protect persons with “well-founded fear” of persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, and/or membership in a particular group. States cannot, according to Article 31 of this convention, impose negative consequences against individuals who enter the country illegally but then apply for asylum, although states are allowed to limit the amount of time in which individuals may apply.

Furthermore, some anti-immigrant state policies are directly responsible for migrant deaths. In an important and devastating example, in August 2018, Malta detained three NGO rescue ships to prevent them from operating along the migration route from northern Africa and southern Europe. These rescue missions were begun as a civil society response to the extremely high death tolls along this migration route (recorded at 5,143 in 2016 by the IOM). According to the IOM report, these deaths mainly occur due to environmental conditions along the route, physical violence, risky transportation methods, and lack of safe food and water along the route. In addition to the detention of ships, Italy and Malta have both closed their ports to other NGO rescue vessels operating in the Mediterranean. By halting NGO activities, Italy and Malta have significantly increased the danger faced by migrants as they seek asylum in Europe.

Now What?

Currently, the majority of anti-immigrant, anti-refugee politics have been limited to just that – political rhetoric – yet the countries which have instituted real, problematic legislation are cause for a sobering response. The recent Global Compacts, one for migration and the other on refugees are one major step toward a unified international response to increasing migration and a greater number of refugees. The Compacts represent a productive response to the initial question I presented about the responsibility of states to migrants; this question, though, disregards the fact that migration is not a one-way process even for Global Northern countries. Perhaps a better question would be, what is the relationship between democracy and migration?  In the spirit of the Global Compacts, we should be looking at this issue with the understanding that international migration is increasing. Instead of a burden, this is an opportunity to work as an international community to reinvent a world in which mobility and globalization are inevitable and embraced for their potential.


By SaraJane Renfroe. SaraJane is an MA student in the Human Rights Studies program, focusing on migration and refugee integration.

Sterilization of People With Disabilities: Acknowledging the Past and Present History, Rhetoric, and Effects of a Harmful Practice

In the first week of 2019, a story about an Indigenous woman in Arizona giving birth while having been in a vegetative state for the past 14 years hit international headlines. It came as no surprise when investigators announced that they were looking into a “possible sexual assault.”

A person in a vegetative state, by definition, cannot consent to sex because they are non-responsive to stimuli and lack self-awareness. This woman, disabled and reliant on healthcare providers to support her quality of life was instead abused and assaulted with no recourse to defend herself.

This case is one of many that demonstrates the serious issues of sexual assault that face disabled people around the world today. According to disabilityjustice.org, people with disabilities (PWD) are three times more likely to be sexually assaulted than someone who is not disabled. 83% of women with disabilities (WWD) will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. Understanding the severity of sexual assault of PWD is vital to developing solutions to better protect the human and bodily rights of these individuals. Unfortunately, however, this problem has created another equally harming one: the sterilization of PWD, and especially WWD.

Sterilization Map from 1929

Sterilization is the surgical or non-surgical practice of ending an individual’s reproductive ability. Consensual sterilization is a relatively common practice among individuals who for personal or health reasons desire a permanent method of birth control. However, forced or nonconsensual sterilization is also a far-too-common (and still vastly legal) practice, and disproportionately inflicted upon PWD.

In 2017, Catalina Devandas Aguilar, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, released her annual report to the General Council, focused thematically on the Sexual and Reproductive Rights of Women and Girls with Disabilities. In the section entitled “Harmful and Forced Practices”, Aguilar highlights the forced sterilization of WWD worldwide, citing this as a “widespread human rights violation” that “disproportionately [subjects] [WWD] to forced and involuntary sterilization for different reasons, including eugenics, menstrual management, and pregnancy prevention,” as well as perceived protection from sexual abuse. Aguilar calls for the global community to recognize the human rights of WWD and end the harmful practice of nonconsensual sterilization.

According to the report, although the international human rights bodies have declared that sterilization of PWD is a form of discrimination, violence, torture, and other cruel and inhuman or degrading treatment, it is still legal and applied in many states worldwide. Often, this is because of court and guardian enforcement of social perceptions of PWD as either asexual or hyper sexed—either way, they are deemed unfit for parenthood, incapable of possessing sexual pleasure or desire, and would be too “burdened” by sex education or contraception use and menstrual management.

Women with disabilities are disproportionately affected by sterilization because of the fear of pregnancy and monthly menstruation. WWD are sterilized at three times the rate of the general population, meaning that of the over one billion PWD in the world today, the 1/5 of the world population that is a WWD faces serious threat of forced sterilization.

Traditional roles for women emphasize the importance of their existence as sexual beings intended for reproduction, connected to “heteronormative” and “phallocentric” interpretations of sex. Perceptions of asexuality lead to beliefs that WWD don’t have sexual or reproductive needs/rights. This contradicts empirical studies that show that PWD have the same needs with regards to sexuality and relationships as any other “able” person.

The supposed asexuality of WWD leads to the paternalistic rationalization of sterilization for “their own good.” In the landmark 1927 case Buck v Bell, Supreme Court Justice Holmes famously upheld the sterilization of involuntarily institutionalized 18 year old Buck in his quoted opinion: “three generations of imbeciles is enough.”

Even today, court rulings will justify sterilization orders to prevent the birth of a child with a disability by a WWD—regardless of if the condition is hereditary. In January of 2018, Washington state started negotiations over a form that would make it easier for a guardian (NOT the disabled person) to file for sterilization in the courts. Reporting on this, the ACLU believes that “creating this form will streamline the process and increase the number of guardians requesting the sterilization of those under their power.”

This is not to mention the warped argument that sterilization can prevent sexual assault—a view that in reality only protects the perpetrators and the aftereffect of rape: pregnancy. This argument suffers more from perceptions of WWD as being incapable caretakers or burdens than from true protection from assault.

Many PWD are infantilized, largely because most are dependent on caregivers, parents, and guardians for many aspects of their lives. This creates an immense power imbalance when it comes to decision making regarding issues of sexuality and reproduction. It is not uncommon for parents to sterilize their child for their own convenience, under the guise of protection.

In 2007, the  “Ashley Treatment” was a case in which young Ashley’s parents subjected their disabled daughter to a hysterectomy, breast bud removal, and hormone growth treatments to freeze her body in a childlike state. This was upheld by a bioethics committee because it was for “her own good”.

“Protecting people from themselves” is not far off from the eugenic rhetoric of the early 20th century, a movement that popularized the sterilization of PWD to prevent the “degeneration” of the white race. Not only is sterilization a system of sexuality control, but it is also deeply rooted in racialized and gendered constructs of human value. Between 1927 and 1957, 60,000 Americans were sterilized by virtue of being “feebleminded,” thanks to the eugenic concepts of Francis Galton, who in 1865 argued that “human mental qualities” could be manipulated and controlled through selection. The production of disability has undoubtedly been a raced, classed, and gendered cultural process—and with it has come the violation of the rights of PWD everywhere.

“Feeblemindedness” was used as a substitute term for any person that threatened the white, heteronormative structures of domination. For example, 1912 intelligence tests at Ellis Island determined “widespread feebleness” among Eastern and Southern European immigrants. Other people determined feebleminded were homosexuals, blacks, poor women “unfit to be mothers,” and “degenerates.” Sterilization of men and women was popularly practiced during chattel slavery and still today many Indigenous women are forcibly sterilized, most noted recently in Canada. The US and Canada both possess histories of the coerced sterilization of indigenous women, not to mention the fact that indigenous women are more likely to be sexaully assaulted, like the woman in the nursing home who faced the double oppression of being being both disabled and indigenous.

The continued practice and legal support of sterilization of WWD starkly contrasts most feminist or human rights-promoting rhetoric on violence against women in other areas of reproduction. We hear endless support for the right to abortion and reproductive control for women, but arguments for stopping sterilization of women with disability are almost entirely absent from the mainstream discourse. Likely, this lies in the fear that supporting not sterilizing WWD threatens the traditional messaging of pro-choice abortion rights. Thus, forced sterilization is pushed to the bottom of the advocacy platform for fear of jeopardizing the highly politicized feminist movement.

However, advocating against sterilization is as equally about choice as advocating for abortion. It is about the choice of consent, the choice of motherhood, and the choice of bodily control. This is where reproductive rights fails and reproductive justice takes over. Reproductive justice, coined by the SisterSong Collective, recognizes “not only a woman’s right not to have a child, but also the right to have children and to raise them with dignity in safe, healthy, and supportive environments.” As an intersectional approach, reproductive justice encompasses race, class, gender, and ability, thus creating space for a feminist movement that centers around all bodies, not just mainstream bodies. Including WWD in mainstream feminist and human rights discourse is our next crucial step. That is the true reproductive justice movement and the direction to go if we are to protect all women.


By Rowena Kosher

Gemfields’s Quest for Conflict Rubies in Nthoro, Mozambique

If you’re thinking of purchasing rubies in the New Year, you might want to reconsider purchasing any cardinal gem sourced from Mozambique. In 2011, a “poor and illiterate” farmer in Mozambique discovered a precious red gemstone, creating a “ruby rush.” This find made the country one of the world’s largest ruby producers. However, due to the rarity of rubies, according to the World Bank, land rights within Mozambique are a contentious issue, where ill-informed citizens are coerced into land grabs by government officials and influential corporations to mine rubies.

As a central place for exceptional quality rubies, Gemfields Limited, a mining corporation that specializes in the mining and marketing of gems, wanted copious blood-red coloured gemstones from Mozambique. In 2011, Montepuez Ruby Mine (MRM), a subsidiary of Gemfields Limited, won the mining rights to 36,000 hectares of ruby-rich land in Nthoro, Mozambique. This created horrendous human rights violations on the local level. Having promised to relocate victims after winning mining rights in Nthoro since 2011, Gemfields continues to disregard issues of compensation. A lack of responsibility has exacerbated issues related to lack adequate food, housing, employment, social security, education and healthcare. Nthoro native Jerionimo Amade, said, “I’ve seen so many people killed, houses burned all because of rubies. I just want them to give me the money they promised so that I may go and redo my life somewhere else.”

Another Nthoro citizen, Queen Cristina, stated, “In this village, we had a good life. But when our land became a mining concession area, everything changed.” To add, “[if] you are in the mining concession area of MRM, [you are] forbidden to farm, cultivate, build homes or do any mining.” This is a case illustrating, not only, human rights risks and harms, but also, much more broadly, contests over development agendas and who gets to set them.

Examples of the harm caused by Gemfields operations are numerous. But, relocation has been an under reported human rights violation. In accordance with concession laws in Mozambique, MRM promised to rehouse the Nthoro population. However, with a population of approximately 12,000 people, after seven years, many Nthoros have not been relocated and continue to suffer from dire living conditions and human rights abuses. In 2018, Gemfields responded to the relocation crisis, issuing the following statement “[Gemfields] defends itself by ensuring that the relocation plan is in the process of being finalized.”  Gemfields stated that the company has identified 105 families currently living in Nthoro, where these families will be rehoused in the district of Montepuez, for a total investment of USD$10 million. The group promises the relocation will include new schools, a church, a mosque and even a training centre. Finally, in April of this year, Cabo Delgado governor Julio Parruque discussed the resettlement plan that will take place in Namanhumbir, Montepuez district, indicating that the process will take a total of 24 months. “The process seems long and time consuming, but these steps are necessary to ensure that nothing fails and that your rights and benefits are safeguarded,” says Parruque. However, Nthoro residents say this hasn’t happened. As a global norm, corporations should seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations. By citing Mozambique’s 2014 Petroleum and Mining laws,“the mining contract must contain rules concerning the participation of the State in the mining venture, local content and protection of local communities.”While Gemfields stated that “we go over and above accepted practices operating in a way that not only meets international and national laws, but that also challenges the sector by setting new benchmarks around sustainability,” it is clear that the growing number of human rights abuses question the company’s integrity towards human rights.

Recently, Gemfields’ focus on environmental protection aims to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which pushed the company to launch a “Every Piece Unique” Global Campaign to raise awareness for responsible sourcing in the gemstone industry. As written in the trade magazine, Jewellery Focus, “Gemfields believes that coloured gemstones should be mined and marketed by championing three key values – ’transparency, integrity and legitimacy’ – and seeks to challenge itself and the sector by setting new benchmarks for responsible sourcing.” In response, Gemfields stated, “we wanted to bring to life the many stories behind responsibly sourcing precious gemstones in Africa, as there is far more to our business than industry-leading mining and geology.” Yet, according to Times Live, the Nthoro population continue to lack piped, potable water, electricity or adequate healthcare, while living in homes built from wooden stakes and dried grass. On the other hand, minutes away from MRM’s mining site, the company’s camp has power, running water, restaurants and a proper health clinic. Evidently, SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation) and 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities) are being violated. According to testimonies from Nthoro citizens, the hypocrisy between Gemfields’ global sustainability campaign and their work in Mozambique illustrates the mining company’s neglect for human rights and its inability to mitigate human rights violations occurring within and around their own mine sites.

In order to address the numerous human rights violations occurring in Nthoro because of Gemfields’ mining activity, Dr. Joanne Bauer, Adjunct Professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and Vice Chair of Inclusive Development International stated, “Clever business and human rights strategies need to be multipronged; looking at a wide range of strategies to figure out how to sequence them and approach it from all angles until justice is obtained.” Bauer argues that a multitude of approaches, such as a public campaign andan exposé analyzing investment chains or even working with shareholders can penalize Gemfields in some way.  However, in the case of Gemfields, Bauer believes that “[human rights commitments] aren’t retroactive – it would be for investments going forward. Gemfields would have to keep moving forward, but they do not necessarily have to provide remedy to have access to capital… remedies remain rare, particularly when it comes to economic and social rights.”

In accordance with Bauer, in 2016, 100Reporters concluded a three-year investigation observing that MRM dug more than $100 million dollars worth of gems in Mozambique, creating a number of human rights concerns over violence and land rights in association with Gemfields operations. Despite public claims to showcase Gemfields stance for “sustainable extraction, transparency, integrity and legitimacy,” this raises questions about their  high ethical standards pledge. Two years later, remedies for victims continue to remain rare. While Nthoro, Mozambique was once a fruitful home, many citizens are now leaving Nthoro to avoid the deadly human rights violations that are happening in the midst of Mozambique’s ruby rush.


By Juana Lee

Nicaragua: A Human Rights Crisis

Social media has visibilized many human rights atrocities in the recent past and been crucial in the mobilization of masses, as it is able to transmit information to a great audience.

Since the very beginning of the crisis in Nicaragua, activists have taken to Twitter, Facebook, and other forms of social media to raise awareness of the human rights abuses perpetrated by the government. Most recently, activists from the Alianza Universitaria Nicaraguense (AUN) or the Nicaraguan University Alliance have organized a week-long campaign of civil resistance. The campaign “Navidad Sin Presos Politicos” or “Christmas Without Political Prisoners”, from Monday, December 17 to Friday, December 21 demands the Ortega-Murillo government to release all political prisoners before Christmas Day.

On Monday, December 17, the “Llamada Masiva” urged citizens to make phone calls to the Supreme Electoral Council, the Supreme Court of Justice, and the Ministry of the Interior. On Tuesday, December 18, the “Paro Electrico” urged that from 8-9pm everyone turn off all their lights in solidarity with political prisoners. On Wednesday, December 19, the call for “Sonemos Nicaragua” asked everyone turn on their radios, which will be playing “Nicaragua, Nicaraguita” on Corporacion radio station  after 6pm. On Thursday, December 20, the “Paro de Consumo” urged everyone to not buy any goods and to support the national strike. The campaign ended on Friday, December 21, with the “Cacerolazo y Pitazo” which urged everyone to make noise in the streets, at home, or anywhere they can after 6pm and onwards. All of the information regarding the week-long campaign has been hashtagged #NavidadSinPresosPoliticos and been posted massively by Nicaraguan activists, civil society, and on AUN’s Twitter and Facebook page.

Photo by Carlos Herrera

So, how did Nicaragua get here?

On April 18, the Nicaraguan national police, headed by current President Daniel Ortega, opened fire on peaceful demonstrators protesting social security reforms. The government functioned under the guise that the reform would “guarantee the financial sustainability of the social security institution,” yet the reform was undertaken only by the executive branch and private sector. Its effects on the population –  a 21% increase for worker contributions to the INSS (Institute of Social Security) and a 5% deduction to the pensions of retirees.

When the first wave of protests commenced, Nicaraguan civil society’s only demand was to dissolve the social security reform. However, after the withdrawal of the social security reform on April 22, the State’s excessive use of force and violence triggered nationwide peaceful demonstrations demanding justice, liberty, and peace. One of their other demands was the removal of president Daniel Ortega and vice president Rosario Murillo from office.

During the last eight months, the Nicaraguan government’s repression has resulted in grave human rights abuses, such as extrajudicial killings, torture, intimidation, repression and criminalization of the demonstrators and the social movement they represent, among more.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), as of June 19, documented that “the repressive action of the State has led to at least 212 deaths, 1,337 wounded persons and 507 political prisoners” while “hundreds of persons at risk of being victims of attacks, harassment, threats and other forms of intimidation.” By July 7, the Nicaraguan Association Pro-Human Rights had reported 351 deaths. Nicaraguan news outlets further estimate 30,000 have fled and sought asylum in Costa Rica alone. Other numbers of asylum seekers are unknown, but many have also fled to neighboring Honduras or the United States.

Repression of protestors

Amnesty International documented the use of excessive force against student protestors by the police, who were working alongside irregular para-police forces, which were following a “shoot to kill” directive.

On May 28, students in Managua were attacked by parapolice groups and anti-riot forces of the State using bullets, tear gas and mortar shells. Shortly after, an attack on the peaceful demonstration, “March of the Mothers” on May 30  resulted in more than 17 deaths across the country, with dozens more injured. During this same day, several buildings were set on fire.

While the government had announced the creation of the Verification and Security Commission (CVS) to peacefully negotiate the removal of barricades used by the protestors as a defense mechanism for attacks by the military forces, only two of the cities with the barricades were removed by peaceful means through the commission. Thus, mid-June to early July consisted of Operation for Peace, colloquially referred to as Operation Clean-Up by civil society, which served to destroy the barricades through  lethal force and direct confrontation with protestors.

On October 14, the government kidnapped dozens of leaders from the “Unidad Nacional Azul y Blanco,” a coalition of different organisms and citizens who demand democracy, justice, and liberty, while violently assaulting protestors who were gathered in a peaceful protest. Among those detained and assaulted were human rights defenders, leaders in NGOs, as well as members of civil society.

Throughout the repression, protestors also suffer from limited access to hospitals or medical care, as any doctor or surgeon who operates or helps a protestor with a wound could be classified as aiding “terrorism.”

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has further reported that “excessive force was used in violation of the principles of necessity and proportionality as required by international law and standards to make the use of force legal.”

Criminalization of Protests

In order to criminalize protests, the Nicaraguan government has labeled any person who partakes in a protest to be a “terrorist” or a “coup plotter.” Furthermore, student activists share that even wearing the national flag around their shoulders has incited police repression.   

This first-step of criminalization is noted by the National Police’s September 28, 2018 press release (115-2018), which qualifies demonstrations of public protest as illegal because protests have allegedly caused violent acts to arise and its organizers must be held legally responsible.

To exacerbate criminalization, on October 13, 2018, the National Police issued a new note (116-2018) establishing that any mobilization must be approved by the police authorities. The police reiterated that “any action that violates the right of Nicaraguan families to Peace and Life and recalls that any provocative, instigating and violent activity will be punished according to the Political Constitution and Laws of Nicaragua.”

The IACHR called on the Nicaraguan State to immediately cease the repression of demonstrators and the arbitrary detention of those who participate in the protests, as it is a core right to participate in a democratic system, which inevitably include social tools such as protesting and demonstrations.  

Furthermore, this criminalization allows for the use of lethal force and excuses blatant repressive behavior as an issue of public order.

Attack on the Press and NGOs

On December 14, the Nicaraguan government raided the offices of one of the most emblematic human rights organizations, the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) along with several other organizations. In these raids, they seized assets, personal property, registries, among more. Many of these organizations were also stripped of their legal status by lawmakers in Congress.

The police forces also attacked and seized offices of the nation’s leading independent media organizations including Confidencial, Revista Niú, Esta Semana y Esta Noche, violating fourteen amendments of the Nicaraguan Constitution, along with international law. Most recently, on December 21, paramilitary forces forcibly broke into the offices of 100% Noticias, a media organization in Nicaragua and took their director, Miguel Mora. They additionally stopped the airtime of Channel 9, 10, and 11 as they were transmitting the news of the break-in.

On December 19, the Special Follow-up Mechanism for Nicaragua (MESENI) and visits from the CIDH (Inter American Commission for Human Rights) were temporarily suspended by the Nicaraguan government.

This violent attack on the media and NGOs is another example that the government will not step down in its terror-inducing agenda towards opposition.

As a response to this latest attack on the press, on December 15, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Central America, Michelle Bachelet called for the government of Nicaragua to cease the siege against civil society and the press.

The OAS (Organization of American States) further concluded that “the State of Nicaragua has not fulfilled its international obligations to respect, protect and ensure human rights” in the context of the social protest.

While Nicaraguan activists and civil society are undergoing and experiencing paralyzing repression, their constant demands for peaceful change need to be ultimately heard. Campaigns like AUN’s #NavidadSinPresosPoliticos represent yet another effort made by university students and civil society to demand that their human rights be respected. As an international community, those demands should be supported to ensure that the call for justice is heard.


By Jalileh Garcia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By Jessica Pierson


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

The Future of Queer and Trans Rights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By Laura Charney

LGBTQ Rights in a Global Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By Rowena Kosher