Archive for Region

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

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