Archive for Region

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

By: Laura Charney, RightsViews Staff Writer

In the keynote speech at the Dreams of a Nation Palestine Film Festival at Columbia University in 2003, Edward Said said that “the whole history of the Palestinian struggle has to do with the desire to be visible.”

This struggle is in constant tension with the politics of historical narrative in the context of Israel and Palestine. Mainstream histories of the region for most of the 20th century have drawn from official Israeli state archives. Deemed as empirically factual and ideologically neutral, the bias towards official archives often functions to erase Palestinian historiography from the publish sphere.

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

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

For over twenty years, Palestinian film festivals across North America and Europe have brought Palestinian stories to international audiences. However, it was not until this past April at Columbia University that a film festival focusing exclusively on Gazan stories has come to life.

Palestinians in Gaza face particularly prohibitive measures that inhibit the articulation and transmission of their stories across borders. Since 2007, Israel has maintained a blockade on Gaza, controlling its airspace, coastline, and borders, and restricting the movement of goods and humans entering or leaving the territory.

In an attempt to shine light on the issues specifically facing Gazans, “Gaza on Screen” strove to unsettle some of the borders that hinder the transnational circulation of Gazan stories. Hosted by Columbia University’s Center for Palestine Studies, the three-day-long film festival programmed feature-length films, documentaries, short films, and a master class with Abdelsalam Shehada, a Gaza-based film director who has made over 20 documentaries.

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

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

Palestinian-produced films, like those shown at “Gaza on Screen,” disrupt dominant media stereotypes of Palestinians, and provide a medium through which names, memories, families, and personalities, come to the fore. Further, the circulation of Palestinian film allows stories to move in order to speak to experiences of Palestinian diasporas. When describing his feelings on visual narratives, Ewais stated: “Cinema is my only way out.” Because of the blockade, he has never left Gaza. Ewais is one of the many directors and filmmakers who contributed to telling Gazan stories at “Gaza on Screen.”

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

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

Dr. Nadia Yaqub

 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Technology and Privacy in Refugee Aid

By: Parima Kadikar, guest contributor. Parima is a rising senior at Columbia College studying Middle Eastern Studies and Human Rights.

In an exceedingly digital world, humanitarian aid for refugees is being revolutionized by technological innovation. International non-profit organizations and UN agencies have begun to employ strategies like biometric scanning and blockchain technology to streamline aid delivery and prevent identity fraud. While these strides are noteworthy examples of progress, it is also important to address the potential privacy concerns that could result.

In the context of conversations sparked by the Patriot Act— Congress’s response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks which expanded federal jurisdiction over private data and communications for the purpose of intelligence gathering– and, more recently, by the Cambridge Analytica data-mining campaign which harvested the data of millions of Facebook users without their knowledge or consent for conservative political campaigning, many Americans are protective of both their physical and digital privacy. The evidence of this can be seen from taped webcams in college classrooms to frustration with the TSA at airports to the rising popularity of secure messaging apps for activists.

For refugees, however, concerns about privacy permeate all aspects of life. If they are living in a country with strong xenophobic sentiments, refugees may wish to  conceal their identities due to fear of discrimination. Additionally, many escape or resettlement routes taken by refugees as they flee their home nations require unauthorized border crossings. BBC has produced a video simulating the privacy dangers associated with this when an asylum seeker has a cell phone; if their location is being tracked as they flee to safety, they could be targeted by border authorities and their asylum requests could be denied for entering unauthorized.

As well as the concern about losing asylum status in their destination, refugees face the possibility that the group(s) persecuting them– whether it be a government regime, militia, or other non-state actors– could also discover their location or involvement in activism through technology usage. Such a discovery could present immediate threats to a refugee’s life, or at the very least prevent them from ever returning to their home country.

One attempt to secure refugee data is the World Food Programme’s (WFP) use of biometric scanning and blockchain technology to distribute aid in Jordan’s Zaatari camp, the second largest refugee camp in

Aerial view of Jordan’s Zaatri refugee camp, where technology is used by WFP

the world. “Eye Pay,” a project within the organization’s “Building Blocks” program, allows refugees to access a digital wallet by scanning their irises at participating shops within the camp.

While this technology is impressive, it raises concerns about feasibility. Building Blocks runs on a private-permission blockchain, which addresses data security concerns but is difficult to expand in scale.The WFP’s technology is supported by the cryptocurrency Ethereum, meaning that users who buy, sell, and mine this currency validate the chain. Therefore, the market for Ethereum must grow significantly before a program like Building Blocks can be increased in scope.

In order to successfully manage the data for large refugee populations, WFP is faced with a question of how to incentivize Ethereum holders to increase the level of coordination in these initiatives. As

Biometric scanning such as “Eye Pay” uses technology to create digital wallets accessible via iris imaging

blockchain technology provides a significantly more secure alternative to storing refugees’ data on UN databases, a successful means of incentivizing coordination so as to expand the existing program could lead to outcomes that redefine refugee aid.

However, until such technology can be implemented on a larger scale, the threat of privacy breaches remains very real for refugees. In order for a displaced person to receive official refugee status from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) (and, as a result, access to aid earmarked for refugees), they must submit a great deal of personal data to the agency. While it is understandable that UNHCR needs to collect information like employment and health records from applicants to prevent identity fraud, Privacy International, a non-profit organization that pressures companies and governments to implement better data privacy regulations, warns that issues arise when it shares jurisdiction over this data with other groups.

It is difficult to know about specific instances of UNHCR privacy breaches as the agency does not publicize this information. A 2014 breach of Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP), however, led to the publication of the personal details of over 9,000 unsuccessful asylum seekers on the DIPB website. These details included full names, gender, citizenship, date of birth, period of immigration detention, location, boat arrival details, and the reasons that each applicant was denied refugee status.

A lawsuit was subsequently filed against the DIBP, alleging that the asylum seekers whose information was publicly revealed were treated unfairly during the review process. While the High Court of Australia ruled that the representative litigants in this case were treated fairly by the government, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) is currently (almost 5 years later) assessing whether or not the affected asylum seekers should be compensated for the violation.

Though the Australian breach occurred within a national government and not the UNHCR, it offers a high-profile example of how displaced people can suffer when their privacy is violated. As the global refugee crisis continues to intensify with each passing year, it is imperative that the UNHCR and its partners dedicate more resources and manpower to addressing privacy concerns. The few examples discussed in this blog, such as the WFP’s Building Blocks program, are steps in the right direction. However, until they can be implemented on larger scales, refugees remain especially vulnerable.  

Will the ‘not so accessbile’ Rajasthan State Assembly Elections, 2018, be a precursor to the Lok Sabha Elections in 2019?

The 2019 Lok Sabha Elections are happening throughout India in several phases. At the present moment, the entire nation is embroiled in debates about who will be elected into the next Indian government, as well as reflections on the achievements of the current administration. Part and parcel to the upcoming elections is an important element that has been widely neglected: the question of accessibility. There is a broad lack of awareness about the issue of accessible elections, exasperated by a tendency for discourse to focus on more “appealing” election issues such as development, poverty, corruption and nationalism.

‘Accessible Elections’ was finalised as the central theme for all the upcoming elections by the Election Commission of India (ECI) during the National Consultation on Accessible Elections held in the first week of July, 2018. The aim is to increase the participation of Persons with Disabilities (PwDs) in elections by making them more inclusive and accessible to increasing numbers of people from different communities. The ECI debated on means to counter various barriers to accessibility for PwDs in elections and decided to make sincere efforts to increase accessibility and ensure that the challenges faced by PwDs are addressed in an effective manner. To implement this commitment, the ECI launched the Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation (SVEEP) initiative, which is a model program launched by the ECI for educating the Indian voter base, creating awareness and promoting literacy among voters. Accessibility to elections for PwDs is a part of this initiative. Additional guidelines haven been issued by the Commission providing for certain Assured Minimum Facilities (AMF) for PwDs at the polling booths.

In keeping with the central theme of accessible elections, elections in the states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram, Rajasthan and Telangana were to be held to the standards as set out by the ECI.

I conducted a basic survey of some polling booths in the city of Jaipur during the voting for Rajasthan State Assembly Elections, 2018 (the elections) in order to analyse the extent of implementation of the AMF guidelines and examine any potential loopholes which existed between planning and actual implementation.

Legislative Background

Regarding the national law, Article 14 of the Constitution of India provides for equality before law and Article 21 provides for the fundamental right to life and liberty. With specific regard to elections, Article 324 provides for the establishment, powers, and functions of the Election Commission and its objective of conducting elections in a free and fair manner. Furthermore, Article 325 provides that no person shall be ineligible to vote on the grounds of religion, race, caste or sex. This corresponds to Article 15(1) of the Constitution which provides for non-discrimination by the State against any citizen on the abovementioned grounds. Additionally, Article 326 provides for the principal of universal adult suffrage as the basis for holding national as well as state elections. In light of these provisions, Rule 49N of the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961 and the ECI guidelines have been laid down to address the issue of providing assistance to PwDs.

Relevant legislation to the question of election accessibility also exists at the international level. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) was ratified by India in 2007. Article 29 of the Convention lays down that all States-Parties shall guarantee political rights to PwDs and provide the opportunities to enjoy them, including the right to vote through procedures that are accessible and easy to understand. In 2016, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (RPwD) was passed and hailed by disability rights activists as ushering in a new era for PwDs. Section 11 of the Act provides that “The Election Commission of India and the State Election Commissions shall ensure that all polling stations are accessible to persons with disabilities and all materials related to the electoral process are easily understandable by and accessible to them.” This provision has been laid down keeping in view the rights provided by the Constitution of India and the Article 29 of the CRPD. Both of these provisions elucidate the fact that elections have to be made accessible to PwDs in order for them to enjoy their legal and democratic rights of choosing their governments as citizens of India.

Survey

According to the website of the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (Divyangjan), there are more than 1.5 million PwDs in Rajasthan and 436,125 of them were enrolled as voters for the elections.

Given this large number of voters, the issue of accessibility becomes highly relevant for the continued protection of the human rights of PwD. Curious to see if the AMF guidelines were truly being implemented, I conducted a random sampling survey at polling booths in the capital city of Jaipur during the elections. The criteria I studied were:

  • Physical accessibility to the polling booths- Ramps, Wheelchairs and Attendants.
  • Availability of Braille Scripts with the indication of the parties/candidates.
  • Awareness and sensitization of the Block Level Officers (BLOs) about the ECI guidelines and laws related to rights of PWDs and their readiness towards addressing the issues faced by PwDs during the voting process.
  • Availability of separate toilets for PwDs.
  • Separate entry and exit for PwDs.

Observations and Conclusion

Most of the schools in Jaipur, both private and government, were designated as polling booths. I visited a few of these schools to conduct my survey.  I observed that, in all of the polling booths which I attended, none were at all accessible to the PwD voters.

First, there was no separate entry and exit for the PwD voters. Second, ramps were either missing in some of the places or they were temporarily set-up and seemed quite rickety and dangerous to be used. Third, there was a either a shortage or an absence of wheelchairs in most of the polling booths. Fourth, braille scripts were mostly not available for aiding the visually impaired voters and even if they were, they weren’t being used by the election authorities. Fifth, there were no separate toilets for the PwDs in any of the polling booths. Sixth, attendants were only deputed at one of the polling booths, which was a government school. And last, there was a severe lack of sensitization about the theme of elections and the SVEEP initiative and an unwillingness to help on the part of the Block Level Officers (BLO) and other election authorities. At one of the polling booths, the BLO got agitated upon being questioned about the shortage of wheelchairs and tried to put the blame on the higher level authorities. I was able to speak with some of the PwD voters who were facing issues while accessing the polling booths, but most of them were a bit hesitant to share their specific challenges with me.

The above mentioned observations depict the reality of the polling booths during elections. It illustrates a stark difference between the reformative objectives envisaged by the Election Commission of India and the actual practices that took place during the day of voting.

The lack of physical accessibility due to the absence of ramps and wheelchairs meant that PwD voters had a hard time entering as well as exiting the polling booths. The absence of braille scripts meant that those who had visual disabilities had to take another person’s help in casting their vote, which took away their sense of autonomy and privacy in voting. Furthermore, the lack of separate toilets meant that PwDs weren’t be able to relieve themselves as they stood waiting to cast their votes.

Additionally, the lack of separate entry and exit for PwDs created additional impediments for them in accessing the polling booths. Above all, the lack of awareness on the part of the Block Level Officers and other election authorities further aggravated this situation as they were not able to understand the challenges faced by PwD voters and hence were not willing to provide any assistance to them.

In practice, it is clear that the theme of accessible elections was in vain at the Rajasthan State Assembly Elections, 2018. The lack of accessibility which I observed at the elections highlights a clear violation of the rights provided to PwDs by the Constitution of India. The ECI’s AMF guidelines were flouted during the organisation of the elections, as they were not carried out equally or adequately in the individual polling places. As a result, only 100,200 out of the total enrolled PwD voters in Rajasthan were able to cast their votes during the 2018 state elections.

This brings to light questions about the role of political will, planning, and implementation in the enforcement of human rights treaties such as the CRPD and in domestic legislation like the RPwD Act. The Indian government has taken many legislative steps to express its commitment to making rights for PwD a reality, but there remain larger policy challenges to be tackled through proper implementation of the law. This could include a stricter follow-up strategy by authorities at polling places. Concrete and reliable policy implementation is vital in order to have the largest and most positive impact on PwD and their rights to vote. Without it, the rights of PwD will remain confined to the realm of debates and discussions, leaving voters without a means to participate in their democratic society.

By: Mohneesh Rai, guest contributor, 4th year studying at the NALSAR University of Law in India-Mohneesh Rai (4th Year, NALSAR University of Law)

Human Rights in China: Mass Internment of Uyghurs & Other Muslim Populations

The Human Rights Institute at Columbia Law School invited Uyghur scholars to explore current practices of the Chinese government in the mass internment of Uyghur and other Muslim populations in Xinjiang, and address what human rights advocates and the broader public can do to end these systemic human rights violations.

Left to Right: Jessica Batke, Zubayra Shamseden, Tahir Imin

Since 2017, official reports have indicated that at least one million Uyghur and other ethnic minorities have been held in Chinese “political re-education camps” without due process rights or trial. With growing pressure from the international community to address China’s “re-education camps” in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang), Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute welcomed an esteemed panel of Uyghur intellectuals and academics to discuss this pressing human rights issue.

Vincent Wong, a Masters of Law Human Rights Fellow at Columbia Law School and event organizer, began the presentation with a precautionary statement to the audience. “I just want to recognize that there are a lot of people in this room who have their relatives, friends, loved ones, currently detained, disappeared and whom they can no longer get in touch with,” he said.

Before the panelists began, Wong highlighted three themes that were fundamental to the discussion: history, evidence, and solidarity. He stated that “the history of Uyghur-China relations has been marked with patterns of conflict, dispossession, discrimination, resistance and crackdown. And these patterns would not be unfamiliar to the experiences of other Indigenous populations throughout modern history.”

Moderator Jessica Batke, Senior Editor at China File, welcomed Darren Byler, Lecturer at the University of Washington, Zubayra Shamseden, a Fellow at the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), and Tahir Imin, Founder of Uigher Times, to speak on their personal experiences as well as recent research and findings.

Darren Byler – Turkic Muslims and the Chinese Security Industrial Complex

In May 2014, China declared the “People’s War on Terror,” targeting Uyghurs, who are native to the land where the war is being fought, by calling them “terrorists” or “extremists.” That year, China began using cameras, check points, prisons, internment camps and forced labour factories, and “political re-education camps” to control the Uyghur population.

Specifically, the Chinese government has used a confluence of three main actors: state security, higher education, research institutions and private industries to heighten security among the Uyghur population. Byler called China’s terror capitalism the new “security industrial complex,” which has risen in response to the Uyghur piety.

In April 2018, Byler travelled to Xinjiang, where he witnessed the “security industrial complex” in action. As just one example, Byler witnessed “convenience police stations” that acted as “rapid response” stations that employed several police officers to surveil people who were walking down the street, while also conducting spot checks on “random” passerbyers. In Turpan, there were also face scanning machines that were specifically for the Uyghur population and ethnic minorities.

In relation to these biased security practices, quantitative data analysis and collection was also employed. According to Byler, police officers would go to every Uyghur home to access people using a “10 category assessment” to racially profile Uyghurs and assess their “level of danger.”

According to a victim, “Uyghurs are alive, but our entire lives are spent behind walls. It is like we are ghosts living in another world.”

Concluding his presentation, Byler argued that the Uyghur perspective is built on a process of total unfreedom, threatening Uyghurs’ basic essence to life – including faith, language, culture, and even cuisine. With the continuing mass internment and racial discrimination against Uyghurs, there are broader implications that call into question the idea of self determination. “This is something we all of us should be worried about – because if [the Chinese government] is able to do this, they will be able to do this elsewhere. This is not going to stay [in Xinjiang.]”

Zubayra Shamseden – The Targeting of Uyghur Intellectuals and the Long-Term Impact of Uyghur Scholarship and Artistic Work

Alongside Byler’s presentation, Shamseden began her presentation by translating a line from an essay by detained Uyghur linguist and scholar Abduweli Ayup: “As long as we are Uyghur, we are one unit. Our duty now is to be the prosecutor of the Chinese government.” Shamseden stated that while Ayup was a man who focused his research on Uyghur language and education, he had to be his own “metaphorical” attorney because there was no one else to speak for him or the hundreds of other silenced and imprisoned scholars in the Uyghur homeland.

In 2018, the UHRP’s report indicated that at least 338 intellectuals were imprisoned, forcibly disappeared and sent to “political re-education camps” as a part of an intensified assault and extermination of Uyghur culture. Since then, at least 5 deaths in custody have been confirmed, but the true number of intellectuals who have died in the camp or died upon immediate release is unknown.

Shamseden noted that the so-called ‘re-education camps’ by the Chinese government are in fact extrajudicial prisons and according to eyewitnesses, the intention of this type of detention is not only physical death, but also the assimilation through mental and physical reengineering of the Uyghur identity. “The sad thing is that [most] of these detained Uyghur intellectuals could have helped the Chinese government create the stability it so desired,” she said.

Throughout her presentation, she mentioned Ilham Tohti, a Uyghur economist who was sentenced to life in prison for separatism, Salih Hajim, a Uyghur religious scholar who died in custody, Sanubar Tursan, a Uyghur musician who was forcibly disappeared, and other intellectuals and scholars who have been detained, disappeared or put into China’s “re-education camps.”

“If the conditions in the region are not addressed by the international community, China will spread its brutality beyond its borders,” she said.

Tahir Imin Uighurian – “Terrorist” Babies in Isolated Orphanages

Before beginning his presentation, Imin stated that “I am not speaking as an academic. I am speaking as an ordinary member of the Uyghur community as a father, as a son, as a brother, as a friend.” Focusing on another victim group in the Uyghur mass-internment, as reported by reliable media outlets and UHRP, up to 800,000 Uyghur children were left behind, and sent to state run orphanages, once their parents were forcibly disappeared, detained or imprisoned.

According to Imin, “these babies are being considered by the [Chinese government] as terrorists and are being educated to be a ‘normal, lawful, nice citizen.’” These Uyghur children are being educated to get rid of their “radical, terrorist ideologies.” They cannot see their parents, speak Uyghur or implement a Uyghur Islamic diet – and because of this, suicide, depression, and fear are common.

Since 2017, Imin has been a target by the Chinese government due to his activism for Uyghur culture and scholarship. Because of his activism, he has lost all contact with his wife and daughter. “[My daughter] was my whole life. I never spend a day without thinking of her… But since then, I haven’t heard anything from them. I tried to call, no one has answered by call.” Her last words to him were “Father, don’t call us again. Police are the best people. Chinese police are good people – nice people. But you are not. You are a bad person.”

“I am talking about this painfully heartbreaking issue by myself. I don’t want to talk about my daughter with other people. This is not a joke, this is not a game. Everytime I try to say something, I lose everything in my heart,” he said.

What You Can Do

The speakers mentioned that there are several ways to bring awareness to the human rights violations occurring in Xinjiang. Call your senators and representatives to support the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2019, share the Uyghur Human Rights Project’s short briefings and reports on the mass internment and assimilation of the Uyghurs and sign the Statement by Concerned Scholars on China’s Mass Detention of Turkic Minorities.

In order to prevent the continuous assimilation and mass internment of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, Shamseden stated that “a fight from the intellectual community, especially the academic sectors are crucial.”

To learn more, check out the UHRP.


By a RightsViews Staff Writer

Sanctuary Law – Can Religious Liberty Protect Immigrants?

Summers in Arizona can be unforgiving. One quickly learns to test the surface temperature of objects left in the sun before committing to full contact and to never wear shorts on leather car seats. From May through September, it is not at all uncommon to avoid the outdoors as much as possible; the reprieve of air conditioning far preferable to streets and sidewalks that fry feet as quickly as eggs.

The arid, rocky, cactus-laden land that Arizona is perhaps best known for lies mostly in the southern part of the state, where temperatures can surpass 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Over 370 miles of that land stretches across the border to Mexico, which for years migrants have attempted to traverse at great risk. From 2000 to 2010, the remains of 1,755 people have been found scattered throughout this desert; individuals that succumbed to dehydration, starvation, or sun exposure. Despite the dangers, migrants from Central America continue to cross into the southwestern United States; either desperate or determined to seek out relatives, work, or refuge from violence. An average of over 500,000 migrants have been apprehended in the last five years alone by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The presence of families and minors at the southern border—and the government’s punitive response to them—has drawn media attention of late; increasing pressure on policy makers and human rights advocacy groups alike to find real, cogent solutions.

Earlier this year, a federal judge found four volunteers from the humanitarian aid organization “No More Deaths” guilty of entering the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Arizona without a permit and leaving behind food and water—both of which qualify as misdemeanor offenses. The volunteers explained that the food and water was left behind for migrants that often cross through the area, and that they failed to obtain and sign a permit because the wording stipulates individuals may not leave behind food, water, or medical supplies. The volunteers, whose legal battle is ongoing, face $500 in fines and up to six months in federal prison. Several other No More Deaths volunteers face similar indictments. The response to these humanitarian efforts, led by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona, calls into question the United States’ already controversial approach to immigration policy.

An event at Columbia Law School earlier this month, “Sanctuary Law: Can Religious Liberty Protect Immigrants?” featured an all-female panel—Lizbeth Mateo, Winnie Varghese, Amy Gottlieb, and Rose Cuison Villazor. The women discussed whether or not, and how, U.S. policy that protects the religious freedom of citizens can be used to aid migrants arriving in the southwest.

Back, from left to right: Winnie Varghese, Katherine Franke, Matthew Engelke, Amy Gottlieb, Lizbeth Mateo. Front: Liz Boylan, Rose Cuison Vilazor.

Lizbeth Mateo, an attorney and immigrant rights activist, offered an interesting and unique perspective into the plight of migrants along the southwestern border. She currently represents several migrants in the custody of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Their cause, she said, is near and dear to her heart—because she herself is an undocumented immigrant.

Whenever Mateo visits a client or represents one in court, she runs the risk of being arrested and detained in an ICE detention center. But the gamble, she says, is worth it. Her clients, after all, have risked everything to get here: their lives, their freedom, their wellbeing—what right has she to fear, when her clients have so much on the line?

While posing compelling arguments for migrants’ need of legal representation, Mateo and her fellow panelists make it clear that it is only half the battle. Currently, California and New Mexico are the only states along the border of Mexico with sanctuary laws—that is, “laws, ordinances, regulations, resolutions, policies or other practices that obstruct immigration enforcement and shield criminals from ICE.” These laws make it difficult for ICE to issue or complete detainers, and can protect undocumented immigrants for a time. Arizona, however, has no such laws.

In lieu of sanctuary counties and towns, migrants have found protection in churches. Although ICE agents are not legally barred from entering a church or detaining someone residing in a church, a 2011 Obama-era policy still in effect deems churches “sensitive locations” in which ICE may not engage in enforcement actions unless there are exigent circumstances or prior approval has been obtained. This grey area has provided many undocumented immigrants a home of sorts; a place where they can convene with loved ones, receive aid from local nonprofits and aid organizations, and stage their fight against deportation.

That fight can be a long one. Some, such as Edith Espinal, a client of Mateo’s, have spent over 500 days in sanctuary seeking support from local and state representatives. Edith, an undocumented immigrant and mother of two U.S. citizens, has yet to be visited by any of the elected officials her legal team has reached out to. Without a personal appeal to policy makers, Mateo worries that sanctuary will never be truly guaranteed to her clients. “We need a safety net for these families,” she said to a packed lecture room at Columbia Law, “A safety net is not just a church, it is the guarantee that someone can leave the church without risking being deported the next day.”

In 1993, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The act, which was drafted largely in response to a controversial Supreme Court decision in 1990, served as a robust protection of the religious liberties of U.S. citizens. Katherine Franke, one of the event’s organizers and Columbia Law School’s Faculty Director of the Law, Rights, and Religion Project, explained that the act was originally intended to protect religious minorities—”non-normative, non-majoritarian religions”—from the impact of laws that “may not on their face infringe on religious freedoms, but do in practice.” Theoretically, RFRA could be extended to situations in which individuals in border states wish to offer their private residences as sanctuaries, volunteers wish to leave food and water in the desert as an act of faith, or where the deportation of an undocumented immigrant severs a deeply important religious connection to a community, religious leader, or family member.

While at first these extensions of RFRA may seem a promising relief for the many thousands of migrants seeking refuge in the southern United States, its use in this manner also poses a great risk to other kinds of individual freedoms. In June of 2014, the Supreme Court held that RFRA allows for-profit corporations the ability to withhold health coverage of medications and services that violate their owners’ religion; something praised by conservatives (Burwell v Hobby Lobby Stores, INC). Could it be that RFRA, if used to serve an arguably socially liberal agenda, would thereby arm a more conservative one? Panelists Amy Gottlieb, Rose Cuison, and Reverend Winnie Varghese attempted to answer exactly that question. Their consensus, however, is that we simply cannot know. Yes, said Villazor, RFRA could be used to protect immigrants; but there is good reason for concern that strengthening legal, faith-based arguments will bolster “the other side’s” efforts to exclude, subjugate, and discriminate. Reverend Varghese similarly felt that there is no need for a value outside of our own, national identity. “What we should be fighting for is the Constitution, I think,” Varghese said.

Many faiths are founded on or around a religious obligation to help those in need. It is understandable, then, that advocates might use religion as a lightning rod—an ignition of action, a channel for outrage—in their efforts to shield undocumented immigrants from deportation, to preserve family units, and to rescue migrants from brutal, untimely deaths. And while organized religions and personal beliefs deserve adequate protection under the law, the relationship may rightfully end there. This theoretical dilemma regarding RFRA is reminiscent of a Greek myth, in which a young Pandora stumbled upon an artifact that held more than she had bargained for. In the end, blurring the lines between church and state to serve one purpose—however good and holy—may put so much else we hold dear in jeopardy.


By Kyoko Thompson, by RightsViews Staff Writer

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Is Liberalism Making the World Less Fair?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By Jalileh Garcia, RightsViews Staff Writer

Vigilante Hate Crimes in India

The following is a guest-written opinion piece by Rahul Saraswat and Akshansh Sharma, students at the Gujarat National Law University in India.


Approximately 88 people have been killed in India since 2015 and hundreds have been seriously injured by groups of people who call themselves cow vigilantes. Cows are considered sacred in Hinduism and the cow vigilantes justify violence against Muslims and ethnic minorities in the name of protecting cows. The violence they are using  is called “lynching.”

The Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill was drafted by Leonidas C. Dyer in response to the practice of lynching in America. It defines lynching as a “‘mob or riotous assemblage composed of three or more [people] acting in concert for the purpose of depriving any person of his life without the authority of law as a punishment for or to prevent the commission of some actual or supposed public offense.”  IndiaSpend, a data-based news organization, reports that “Muslims were the target of 52% of violence centered on bovine issues over nearly eight years (2010 to 2017) and comprised 84% of 25 Indians killed in 60 incidents.”

India is a democratic and secular country and its citizens have certain fundamental rights that the State is bound to protect and insure. The State’s fundamental duty is to maintain the rule of law and provide equal protection of the law so that every citizen can practice their right to dignity. However, the continued practice of these violent lynchings demonstrates a failure on the part of the State to fulfill its duties to protect citizens.

India has both signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Articles 6(1) and 9(1) of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights are also reflected in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The Constitution states that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life and personal liberty and these rights shall be protected by law.” When a vigilante group attacks a group of people on the pretext of moral policing, it is a clear violation of their right to life and personal liberty. Although there are laws in India that could prosecute those guilty of lynching, they are often not implemented mainly because of lack of political will, effective policing and fair investigations.

Because of the absence of separate anti-lynching legislation that could forbid the practice of lynching, in 2016 social activists filed a Writ Petition before the Honorable Supreme Court of India seeking relief against mob violence relating to cow vigilantism. The petition asked the state to take measures against these acts. However, since then there have been several more reported cases of lynchings. In response, the apex court declared the act of lynching against India’s Constitutional mandates and defined lynching as a barbaric, inhumane and an uncivilized act. The court stated that lynching is a threat to the democracy and secularity of India. The apex court framed preventive and remedial guidelines and has ensured that every state implement the guidelines.

Thanks to this ruling, Manipur became the first state in India to pass full-fledged legislation to protect citizens against mob lynching. If a similar law to the one in Manipur could be replicated by various state governments across India, then we could witness a substantial drop in cow vigilante hate crimes. Some communities continue to be directly targeted for persecution and violence by vigilante groups. If new prohibitive and protective legislation can be passed that follow Manipur’s model, reducing these hate crimes will be possible.

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