Archive for Africa

Gemfields’ Quest for Conflict Rubies in Nthoro, Mozambique

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Juana Lee, RightsViews Staff Writer

LGBTQ Rights in a Global Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Rowena Kosher

When Political Transitions Work: Reconciliation as Interdependence

South Africa’s transition from apartheid to multi-racial democracy and subsequent Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) are often held up as a gold standard to be replicated by countries emerging for civil war or dictatorship. While recognizing the importance of elections, forgiveness, and truth, Fanie du Toit, Executive Director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town, South Africa, and Virginie Ladisch, head of the Children and Youth program at the International Center for Transitional Justice, sought to challenge audience members to complicate our narrative of the political transition and reconciliation in South Africa and why and how it has and hasn’t worked.

In the popular imagination South Africa’s racially segregationist apartheid regime was brought to an end by democratic elections in 1994. Following the seemingly superhuman leadership of Nelson Mandela, South Africans forgave each other for the crimes of the past and agreed to build a future together. Ever since the TRC’s mandate ended in 1998 other countries transitioning from civil war or dictatorship to liberal democracy have looked to the South African model.

Complicating this narrative is the focus of du Toit’s new book, “When Political Transitions Work,” which is based on extensive interviews with the people at the highest levels of South African politics during the transition, thousands of pages of documents from the era, and du Toit’s scholarly pursuits and substantial practical experience with transitional justice across Africa and the Middle East. Du Toit emphasizes the importance of relationships in political transitions, and the centrality of the recognition of “pervasive, unavoidable interdependence” as a foundational building block of reconciliation. He sheds light on the often-forgotten institutions that guided South Africa through the negotiations to end apartheid, the successes and failures of the TRC, and the failure to deliver economic justice. Ultimately, he persuasively argues, transitions will only work when participants acknowledge their interdependence.

The recognition of interdependence in South Africa did not originate in forgiveness says du Toit, though this was important later, but instead from hard-edged realistic calculations in all camps. As the country tottered on the brink of civil war in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Mandela and his counterpart F.W. de Klerk realized the only future was a shared one. South Africa would not survive otherwise. “We reconcile not because we choose to, we reconcile because we have to,” said Mr Du Toit, “Reconciliation is not for the dreamers or romantics, it’s for the realists.”

While Mandela and De Klerk negotiated in the early 1990s, crucial and often-forgotten new institutions were created which became spaces for inclusivity and fairness. The National Peace Accord, a body which eventually included civic, business, religious, and political leaders, was a non-partisan venue for politicians to denounce political violence and discuss what a transition might look like. In every region of the country the NPA created local bodies and trained of local peacemakers to promote trust and reconciliation, mediate conflicts, facilitate agreements on the operation of local public political events, and liaise with the local police and judiciary. It brought the transition and reconciliation to local communities and created space where a new way of dealing with conflict could develop leading up to the 1994 election. The NPA was also beginning to address the socio-economic violence caused by apartheid, a crucial issue for the millions of Black South Africans denied opportunity because of their skin. The NPA, according to du Toit, still had a lot of offer when it was dissolved after the 1994 elections.

Outside South Africa the TRC is probably the most known, and replicated, part of South Africa’s transition. Inside the country, it’s arguably the most contentions. Between 1996 and 1998 the country sat on the edge of it’s seat as victims and perpetrators of political violence gave emotional public testimony on what they had endured or committed. At the end, the commission released a list of recommendations, including the redistribution some of the ill-gotten economic wealth created during apartheid. These recommendations were by and large swept under the rug after South Africa embraced the free market consensus as espoused by western financial institutions in the late 1990s.

Du Toit has a more positive outlook on the TRC than many of his fellow South Africans – in “When Political Transitions Work” he points out that the TRC helped acknowledge and restore the dignity of victims, established accountability, and produced a public record of violations to act as a permanent reminder – no mean feat considering South Africa’s particularly tortured history. While many White South Africans did not necessarily want to hear victim’s testimony, they couldn’t ignore it, and eventually it forced White South Africa to at least acknowledge what happened under the Apartheid regime. Du Toit’s criticism of the TRC concentrates on the failure of the government to follow through on ameliorating the socio-economic violence caused by apartheid.

As the 1990s drew to a close, the recognition of mutual interdependence began to fade. The abandonment of the NPA and other structures that guided South Africa through the negotiations eliminated a neutral space where political, business and civic interests from all corners of South Africa could meet and discuss how to create a peaceful and just society. By neglecting to address the socio-economic violence of apartheid, racialized wealth disparities have persisted, driving communities further apart and creating the impression of two different South Africas.

While outsiders often point to South Africa’s transition as a stunning success, within the country the perception is far more mixed. Recalling her first visit to South Africa in 2000, Ladisch shared that at the time “reconciliation” was considered a bad word to many. Over the last two decades since the TRC undertook its mandate, the word “reconciliation” has come to mean different things to different people at different times. At times it’s seemed like the South African reconciliation failed, at other times the process seems to be going well. At salient moments, like the death of Nelson Mandela in 2013, South Africans engage in a new round of collective soul searching, and develop a new outlook on reconciliation, based as much on past experience as the contemporary political climate.

Recognizing that South Africa has become an example to many other countries trying to reconcile after years of conflict, Ladisch warned against a “copy-paste” prescriptive approach to transitional justice. “There is no recipe to transitional justice, just different approaches,” she said. South Africa arrived at reconciliation through a realization of interdependence. The political transition was guided and shaped by uniquely created inclusive and fair institutions which mirrored the prior realization. Truth telling was valuable, but to some, the failure to deliver socio-economic justice, has poisoned the word reconciliation. Instead of copy-pasting a South African-style TRC, countries coming out of conflict or dictatorship would do better to build their own fair and inclusive institutions – whether that be a truth commission, reparations bodies, or a new constitution – which reflect the fundamental principle of reconciliation as interdependence.  

By James Courtright

Kagame’s third term bid and the African Union’s silence

By Sylvester Uhaa, former Human Rights Advocate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights, at Columbia University


I read with concern a report regarding a referendum to amend Article 101 of the Rwandan Constitution to allow President Paul Kagame another seven year term. A few days ago, the Rwandan Senate voted to allow him a third term.

d4388b385c0844d39574a83eb34f9873_18Kagame ascended to power in 2003 and was re-elected in 2010. By 2017, he will have spent 14 years in power as President. With the referendum likely to be in his favour, his victory at the polls will allow him to be president for 21 years.

It was with great discomfort that I first heard about this on CCTV News last April, at the peak of the political turmoil in Burundi, following President Pierre Nkurunziza’s similar moves for a third term. Nkurunziza succeeded, but not without the bloodshed of thousands of people, with thousands more continuing flee the country for safety. As the crises heightened, the EU and Brussels have also asked their citizens to leave.

I am not from that region, and I do not happen to be an expert on Rwandan politics, but I am an African who is concerned about the spread of tenure elongation on the continent and its implications for peace, political stability, economic growth, the rule of law, and human rights.

Experience has shown that constitutional amendments for third term ambitions in Africa often trigger violence by opposition or other interest groups, either for the sake of protecting the constitution and the rule of law, or simply out of mistrust for the entire process. There is no guarantee that this will not happen in Rwanda, if not now, then later. The voices of the 10 individuals who opposed the referendum, out of the over 10 million who voted for it, according to the AFP report, could multiply into thousands and even millions of opposing voices and throw the country into chaos. For a country that is just beginning to heal from the wounds of the 1994 genocide, this would be catastrophic.

Most fundamentally, tenure elongation undermines the rule of law and citizens’ right to choose their leaders, which along with the freedoms of expression, religion and association, form the foundations of democracy.

1411335851SenatorsArticle 101 of the Rwandan Constitution sets the tenure of the president at two terms. Of course, constitutions are not written in stone, and a referendum is a legitimate and legal process by which to amend a constitution. However, the amendment of constitutions should not be solely in the interest of a single individual, as it would be in this instance. Africa needs leaders who uphold, defend and protect the rule of law and human rights, not those who bend, amend, manipulate, misinterpret, and violate human rights to suit their personal interests.

Another concern is the precedent this might set for the future. Are the Rwandan people really prepared, for the sake of one man they like, to risk coping with future presidents they may not like for 21 years or more? While this is too much of a risk in my opinion, the recent referendum seems to suggest that it is one Rwandans are willing to take.

How can anyone be sure that Kagame, unlike Oliver Twist, will not ask for a fourth term? Why did he not groom a successor, who would continue his policies and style of governance if he is doing this for the sake of the people, as he says? Even the idea of grooming a successor is not entirely democratic; the people must be allowed the right to choose freely those who will lead them. But it is a lesser evil compared to tenure elongation by the same individual.

I am also worried that Rwanda will add to the number of African nations who have yielded to the strong, autocratic and manipulative influence of rulers who will do anything to stay in power. This would increase the popularity of power elongation on the continent.

Kagame’s third term bid might rekindle ethnic tensions in a country that has not forgotten the horrors of the 1994 genocide. Obama’s words in Ethiopia in July may be instructive: “When a leader tries to change the rules in the middle of the game just to stay in office, it [the country] risks instability and strife, as we’ve seen in Burundi. And this is often just a first step down a perilous path.”

Paul Kagame

Under international law, the international community has the responsibility to protect (R2P) citizens of a State when that State fails to do so itself. This responsibility has three aspects – the responsibilities to prevent, to react, and to rebuild. The most important of these is the responsibility to prevent.

If world leaders are serious about the R2P doctrine, then this is the right time. A stitch in time saves nine!

I applaud the condemnation of the military coup by the African Union (AU) in Burkina Faso and the intervention to restore civilian rule in that country. But I fault the silence of the AU on the ‘civilian coup’ by President Pierre Nkurunziza in Burundi, and the coup currently being staged by President Kagame to overthrow both the rule of law, and the constitution  of Rwanda,  and the right of the Rwandan people to freely choose who will govern them.

The international community must apply every diplomatic and other means to stop Kagame from overthrowing the will and right of the people to freely choose their leaders. The Constitution of Rwanda sets the president’s tenure at two terms, and upholding this and the rule of law is the same as upholding the foundations of democracy.


Sylvester Uhaa is the Executive Director of CURE-Nigeria. He was a human rights advocate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University in 2013 and is currently a Commonwealth Scholar in International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford, UK.

Blood Timber: A Resource Curse

By Rachel Riegelhaupt, graduate student of Human Rights at Columbia University


b3b4f58d-3328-4662-beba-a93a5beaa454When asked about buying conflict-timber from the Central African Republic during an undercover investigation led by Global Witness, a representative from the French manufacturing company Tropical Bois responded, “It’s Africa. War is so common we don’t really pay attention…it’s not a war where they attack white people. It’s not a war we have to avoid.”

The Central African Republic (CAR) has been plagued by violence since November 2012, when predominately Muslim Seleka rebels began to take up arms. In March 2013, they overthrew the president in a bloody coup d’état and pursued a campaign of violence throughout the nation, provoking a violent backlash from the Christian Anti-Balaka militia in September 2013. Although a transitional government is currently in place, with the Seleka’s leader Michel Djotodia serving as interim president, the balance of power is still rocked by clashes between ever-present armed groups. War atrocities such as the use of child soldiers, rape, summary killings, enforced disappearances, and torture have been prevalent, and thousands of civilians have been killed, hundreds of thousands have been internally displaced, and half a million have fled to neighboring countries since the fighting began.

One of the main funding streams behind this violence has been the country’s primary export, timber, leading the UN Panel of Experts on the Central African Republic to recognize logging companies as a key source of income for armed forces in the CAR. As Seleka rebels gained power, they instantly began to monopolize on the country’s prized natural resource; anti-Balaka movements have recently been taking over the country’s rainforest for the same reason. These armed groups sell timber to logging companies based in Europe, China, and Lebanon, who then illegally export it to their home countries. The companies with the largest presence in the CAR are IFB from France, SEFCA from Lebanon, and Vicwood from China—together, they account for 99% of the country’s timber exports.

4c2f5ca5-548d-4f1f-87fc-b578b16fe7a0According to Global Witness, all three of these companies frequently make payments to the Seleka rebels, “as bribes, to pass roadblocks, for armed escort, and for the protection of their logging sites, including a single transaction of nearly 381,000 euros by SEFCA to the Seleka government.” Based on the sheer size of these payments, these companies essentially fund the war, rendering them accessories to war crimes. However, foreign trade of CAR timber has only increased. Europe is the main destination for illegally harvested timber, accounting for nearly two-thirds of the CAR’s total exports. In fact, the French company Tropical Bois, the CAR’s biggest trader, increased profits by 247% over the course of the current conflict in the CAR (they are conveniently co-owned by the biggest logging company operating within the CAR, SEFCA).

Ironically, European governments have provided thousands of troops and invested hundreds of millions of euros to peacekeeping operations in the CAR. France deployed 1,600 troops to the CAR in 2013 in an attempt to disarm the Seleka rebels, along with 700 peacekeepers to maintain security. The UN peacekeeping mission currently has nearly 12,000 troops maintaining security in the CAR. Despite this, European governments have not taken adequate measures to block conflict timber from reaching EU markets. In 2013, the EU initiated the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) in order to regulate illegal logging. Its stated purpose is to “guarantee that any wood exported from a timber-producing country to the EU comes from legal sources [and to] help the partner country stop illegal logging by improving forest governance and regulation.” Once a VPA is established it is legally binding—both for the timber exporting country and for the EU countries importing timber. Though the CAR signed on to the agreement in 2011, the ongoing conflict has made it impossible for the CAR to maintain its end of the agreement. However, European companies have also ignored the agreement and continue to import and trade illegally harvested timber from the CAR.

99be3ff5-ab56-4177-9c09-40dc6acafcedIn contrast, the CAR was suspended from the Kimberley Process just two months after the coup d’état in 2013, prohibiting the country from exporting diamonds—the CAR’s chief export at that time—to international markets in an effort to control violence. The initiative is considered to be widely successful, and the trade of conflict diamonds has fallen significantly. Similar steps were taken to control exports of conflict diamonds from Sierra Leone a few years before. While the issue of blood diamonds has received international attention through groundbreaking exposés, shocking media campaigns, and beloved Hollywood films, blood-timber is seemingly less sexy. The lack of a substantial media campaign against conflict timber stops it from ever reaching the court of public opinion, giving companies no genuine incentive to enact risk-based due diligence measures and giving governments no real incentive to better regulate the trade of conflict timber.

Some may argue that sanctioning timber may inadvertently do more harm than good by hurting the CAR’s economy; they may argue that imposing sanctions against the Central African Republic violates the CAR’s Right to Development. Firstly, there cannot be sustainable development in the context of a war-zone. Secondly, while it would be ideal to hold only the companies at fault (and not the entire industry) accountable for their complicity in war crimes, the existence of the corporate veil makes this option tenuous. Even if litigation were to be brought against specific logging companies and were to be successful, the punishment would simply take the form of monetary compensation—a punishment not nearly substantial enough to bring an end to the company’s illegal activities. Thirdly, it should be noted that robust sanctions are not being suggested, but simply the sanctioning of the timber trade—the industry fueling CAR’s war. While the overall harvesting and sale of timber may create jobs and bring money into the country, these gains are insignificant when considering the role of timber sales in perpetuating the country’s instability and conflict.

Perhaps we need another Hollywood screenplay. Perhaps Edward Zwick and Leonardo Dicaprio will come together to disseminate another message about the resource curse to their audience, steering the public to hold its companies more responsible for their actions. Or perhaps it is time for the EU to properly regulate its timber imports and hold its companies accountable for complicity in war crimes. Or maybe, perhaps it is finally time for corporations such as IFB, SEFCA, Vicwood, and Tropical Bois to step it up themselves—to end illegal logging, to enact proper supply-chain due diligence measures and to ensure that their businesses are not fuelling conflict, human rights abuses, and the continual underdevelopment of the Central African Republic.


Rachel Riegelhaupt is an M.A. Candidate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. Her research focuses primarily on conflict resolution, peace-building, and women’s rights.

On Being LGBT in West Africa

By Philip Rodenbough, doctoral candidate in chemistry at Columbia University.  Twitter: @prodenbough


The Virtual Student Foreign Service (VSFS) is a program organized by the US Department of State through which students work part time on a project under the direction of a mentor at State, USAID, embassies abroad, or other government agencies. The e-internship is completed entirely online, so anyone can participate from anywhere. During the previous academic year, VSFS offered over 300+ positions to students, many of which were human rights related projects.

Through VSFS, I was fortunate to participate in an independent research project on the LGBT experience in West Africa, with the guidance of a USAID mentor. Throughout the 2013-14 academic year, I researched country conditions, collected media reports, conducted interviews, and authored original detailed descriptions on the LGBT experience in West Africa. This research was developed to to help form baseline data that informs on the needs of the local LGBT communities, in addition to assessing the impact of future programming.

West Africa LGBTUSAID has always been committed to global prosperity, and in recent years that commitment has grown to include a focus on LGBT communities. On December 6, 2011, President Obama signed a Presidential Memorandum directing all federal agencies abroad to ensure that US diplomacy promotes and protects the human rights of LGBT persons. Later that same day, Secretary Clinton delivered an historic speech on the human rights of LGBT individuals while commemorating Human Rights Day. Secretary Kerry continued to advance this cause by participating in the first UN ministerial event on LGBT rights. USAID has responded to such leadership by launching its LGBT Vision for Action as part of its policy framework for 2011-2015. Perhaps most hearteningly of all, Secretary Kerry recently announced the appointment Randy Berry as first-ever Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT Persons. It was a pleasure and a privilege to complete this research project in the broader context of increasing inclusiveness of LGBT issues at the US Department of State and at USAID.

During the course of my research, I found homophobia is rampant, discrimination is frequent, and stigmatization is common against the LGBT persons in West Africa. In some countries, legal barriers prevent LGBT persons from equal treatment. Where no formal barriers exist, strong negative social attitudes are often strong and pervasive enough to achieve the same end. Political leaders are generally hostile towards LGBT persons and virtually all countries in the region categorically reject official calls from the UN to respect the human rights of LGBT persons.

LGBT communities do vary from country to country within the West Africa region. Based on the research in this project, the situation for LGBT persons is best in Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and Cote d’Ivoire, where there is relative tolerance and freedom. The situation is worst in Senegal, Gambia, and Nigeria, where LGBT persons are actively castigated and/or imprisoned. The case in Nigeria is particularly troubling due to the recent enacting of more severe anti-LGBT laws. Mauritania has the harshest anti-homosexuality laws and the subject remains strictly taboo, as it similarly does in Niger and Guinea.

Despite these challenges, there is still hope that the situation can improve. Most countries do have active pro-LGBT groups working to change the public mentality. Additionally, pro-LGBT opinion pieces do occasionally appear in local media. LGBT leaders in the region all express a common willingness to partner with development organizations such as USAID. Robbie Corey-Boulet, an Institute of Current World Affairs Fellow studying LGBT advocacy in West Africa (whose works are often cited in this project) argues that these groups are often in need of small seed grants in order to find and promote their voice. Donor requirements such as official recognition by the state and previous experience managing large grants prove problematic for these emerging LBGT organizations. Despite the difficulties they face, LGBT leaders in the region are optimistic that over time they can work together to build a more inclusive and more equitable society.

As a student in a highly scientific and technical degree program, this project was a great opportunity to gain exposure in human rights research. My interest in West Africa stems from my Peace Corps service—I taught high school chemistry in Guinea and Burkina Faso from 2009 to 2011. Although my doctoral project is focused on synthesis and characterization of clean energy materials, my interests extend into science policy, international development, and human rights. My work with VSFS has provided me a greater appreciation for commonalities in seemingly disparate communities, LGBT or otherwise.

I am pleased to share with RightsViews the full and final report from my VSFS internship: Being LGBT in West Africa Project.

That TIME story that South Africa may outlaw spanking at home

By Maria Hengeveld, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University


On 30 July freelance reporter Melissa Locker reported for TIME Magazine that South Africa’s government, in cooperation with some notable children’s rights NGOs, is drafting a bill that would outlaw spanking at home. If the bill passes, South African parents lose their freedom to corporally punish their children, just like teachers did seven years ago. The article quotes Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini, from the pro-ban camp, who argues for child protection, and an anti-ban spokesperson from the Christian organization Focus On The Family, whose weird notion that for most children “the removal of pleasures or privileges is actually more painful than a spanking” is supposed to represent the anti-ban camp.


That’s about all the author chose to cover in the 200-odd word article. But there is a whole lot more to say about ‘spanking’ in South African homes, though.

To get an idea of what TIME is talking about, a bit of background and context does wonders. According to a study by RAPCAN, a Cape Town-based children’s rights NGO, 57% of interviewed South African parents (from all backgrounds, ages and income brackets) smacks or spanks their children with their hands. Thirty- three percent use a belt or other object. Corporal punishment, as presently condoned by South African law, means inflicting “moderate and reasonable chastisement on a child for misconduct provided that this was not done in a manner offensive to good morals or for objects other than correction and admonition”. In other words, the parent or care taker gets to decide whether his physical violence is in accordance with acceptable corrective intentions and with the morals he himself deems ‘good’ to positively shape the child’s behavior. But ‘spanking’, the seemingly innocent term TIME chose for title, is only one part of the story. A story that also includes (and is certainly not limited to) “hitting children with a hand or object, kicking, shaking or throwing children, scratching, pinching, biting or pulling their hair, forcing them to stay in uncomfortable positions, locking or tying them up, burning and scalding” (some acts that the UN CRC include in their definition of corporal punishment).

TIME also forgets to mention that, because of its unique history of institutionalized colonial and apartheid violence, South Africa happens to be one of the most violent countries in the world, its injury death rate being twice the global average. Women and children are the most vulnerable to this violence. Current and accurate statistics on violence are difficult to obtain, partly because much of the violence happens within the homes and goes unreported. But research and reports by several NGOs and service providers give us a solid clue about the extent of the violence that children face. In 2012, for example, the mental health and trauma centre Ekupholeni, which is based just outisde Johannesburg, helped 501 sexually abused children, of whom 148 were between two and seven years old. And in 2011, the South African Medical Research Council organized a meeting on youth violence, which revealed that “for children of all ages, the apparent manner of death was primarily the scourges of violence and traffic – 35% and 20% respectively”. The data also showed that violence was responsible for 10% of children’s deaths. Over 30% of violent deaths of 5 to 9 year olds were caused by firearms. Of overall youth violence, around 40% of deaths are said to be caused by sharp objects, blunt force objects and firearms.

And according to UNICEF, between 2010 and 2011, no less than 54.225 crimes against children (younger than 18 years old) were reported. 84% of these cases involved violent acts against children by someone known or trusted by the child.

While it might be tempting for many to drop these numbers in a separate violence file, and treat the well-intended spank on the bottom by a parent or caretaker as a separate issue, the simple fact that both categories involve intentionally inflicting physical pain on children demands for the relationship to be taken seriously. Violence against children doesn’t take place in a vacuum.

Unlike what TIME’s choice of wording implies, these realities go way beyond the use of “a flat hand on a child’s bottom”. What this tells us is that a ban on corporal punishment is not about some nanny state being unhappy about the occasional ‘slap on the bottom’, but that a highly vulnerable group of citizens might finally get the legal protection against types of violence that is not allowed against adults.

Some have expressed their annoyance with this, in their eyes, inappropriate conflation of corporal punishment with violence. Others call the debate on corporal punishment needlessly polarized and propose that, rather than being ‘pro’ or anti, we might want to think about allowing limited forms of corporal punishment. With the harmful ‘flat hand on the bottom’ type of spank in mind, this seems a sensible statement to make. Until the boundaries between violence and acceptable corrective pain need to be set. (When does a constructive spanking turn into abuse? What does a responsible bruise look like?) To separate corporal punishment from ‘actual violence’ in a country where fatal violence is a reality in all too many households, and try to define what ‘acceptable’ physical harm actually means is not only an unachievable and undesirable undertaking, it also ignores the roots of corporal punishment and how it has historically intertwined with often lethal state violence.

Corporal punishment was one of the many violent tools for the colonial and apartheid ruling class to instill discipline and maintain control. At white settler schools , for example, boys were (for a long time) disciplined physically to harden them and maintain white supremacy. Corporal punishment, then, can at least partly be seen as one of the left-overs of nearly 350 years of white minority rule, which shaped much of today’s normalized violence. And there are many more reasons, not just historical ones, to reject the idea that corporal punishment and violence against children can be treated in isolation. If you grow up in a world where pain is intentionally inflicted on others in order to correct them or to resolve some sort of conflict, chances are you grow up thinking you can treat others, such as your girlfriend, that way too. If the aim of spanking a child is to instill good morals in them, (and we understand good morals as non-violent ones), corporal punishment is likely to have the exact opposite effect. As Lorenzo Wakefield, a researcher and expert on children’s rights, wrote in reference to a recent study of the University of Witwatersrand “there is a strong link of convicted perpetrators of rape — especially those who raped young children under the age of three — who were all corporally punished when they were younger. Research has shown that children who are physically punished or humiliated are more susceptible to carrying out acts of violence in their adult years”.

And there are more studies that confirm this correlation. But this hasn’t convinced everyone that children need this kind of protection. Some have played the Christian card to contest the proposed ban, when others view corporal punishment as a cultural right. But since both culture as well as religion are a matter of interpretation (and culture is never static anyway), they can and have been used to defend the ban as well.

Khaye Nkwanyana worries that “if this law is passed it will represent the power of the resourceful lobbyist NGO that stands in range against the entire society. It will represent the will of the University of Western Cape against the entire South African society. And as active South Africans we cannot countenance such a tendency where those with money can impose their will and cultural choices to all of us”.

Which begs the question: who is part of this ‘entire’ South African society? Do children count too? Because, as we look at some recent numbers, about a third of South Africans is under 18 years of age. (Some say 0-14 year olds alone account for 28,4% of South Africans). So if we talk about the ‘entire society’, what is their place? Are they citizens or simply possessions of the entire adult society? And since the entire discussion is about their fate, who has asked them how they feel about it? Next to a few outdated studies that present some accounts by children who describe the degrading and abusive treatment they had suffered, the actual opinions of children are nowhere to be found in mainstream media.

Some teachers, on the other hand, put forward more instructive concerns by complaining that the ban on corporal punishment in schools has led to a decline in discipline. Which can either mean that corporal punishment is the only way of maintaining order and disciplining children, or that it is the only method they know.

Corporal punishment perpetuates South Africa’s crisis of violence. The proposed ban sends out a strong message that children are more than the possessions of their parents and that they have a right to the same legal protection from violence that is granted to adults. They also deserve the chance to voice their opinions, get represented in the media and participate in the debates that affect them.

Is a ban the answer to the violence that children face? Will it reduce the levels of violent young deaths? Or stop the well-intended smacks on the butt? Probably not. After all, despite the ban at schools, it appears to still be widespread there too. Which is why South Africa needs a serious campaign that educates entire society on alternative disciplining methods. Methods that, unlike corporal punishment, will teach children about desirable behavior in a constructive and effective way.

If the South African government takes its responsibility to protect its children seriously, it should intensively work with children, NGOs, caretakers and teachers to develop, support and sustain campaigns that offer alternative, child-friendly alternatives to corporal punishment. One NGO who works on positive parenting programs and develops parental guides is Childline South Africa. Their resources for parents can be downloaded here.

This post appeared previously on Africa is a Country on August 23, 2013.

Maria Hengeveld is a Human Rights graduate student at Columbia University in New York. She is interested in women’s rights, youth and gender in Southern Africa.

Halfway There: The Nyaka AIDS Orphan Project – “For Our Children’s Sake”

Students at breakfast at Kutamba School

By Morag Neill, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University


The hustle and bustle of the city was not forgiving on my first day in Uganda. I attempted to maneuver through Kampala’s town center searching for the shared taxi headed for Luafu stage, the minibus stop where the Nyaka AIDS Orphan Project offices were located. After an hour of confusion and with the help of both curious and kind strangers, I finally found myself at the black gates in the quiet neighborhood of Makindye. A wide-smiled lady named Barbara greeted me at the reception and handed me the guestbook to sign as I waited for my supervisor, Jennifer Nantale to emerge. As I sat there, proud of myself for finding my way to the cool offices decorated with pictures of graduating students draped in their academic garb, I had no way of knowing that the next few weeks were going to be as impactful and challenging as they turned out to be.

The Nyaka AIDS Orphan Project (NAOP) was established in 2001 by Twesigye Jackson Kaguri, 2012 CNN Hero and an alumnus to ISHR’s Advocate’s Program at Columbia University. I had the honor of joining the NAOP family as their development intern with the task of broadening their local fundraising strategy in Uganda. Consistent with the nature of NGO work, Nyaka is in constant search for new funders and innovative ways to maintain the multiple programs that the Nyaka AIDS Orphan Project houses. NAOP has over 600 students enrolled in their two primary schools. Alongside the two schools and their libraries is the ever-prospering Mummy Drayton School Clinic; the Grandmother Project which supports over 7,000 grandmothers in the area; the Desire Farm which facilitates both schools’ nutrition programs; the Clean Water System which provides running water to the communities in both districts through a gravity-fed pump; and the pending construction of the secondary vocational school and boarding houses.

In my third week in Uganda, I took a break from the city life and travelled 12 hours southwest to Kanungu and Rukungiri districts. Thus far, my week in the field has been the highlight of my time in Uganda. Our first stop was the Nyaka School and we arrived just as the students were getting out of class. Proudly displaying their bright purple uniforms, the students darted across the school compound playing basketball, netball, volleyball and football (soccer). Our trip was especially important as we brought with us nine donated computers for each of the classroom teachers at the Nyaka School and connected the library with satellite internet. Jennifer and I held a workshop to ensure that the teachers could maneuver through Microsoft Office and access their emails. In the following days, we were able to visit each of the projects under NAOP, including a day visit to the Kutamba School. To top off the end of each busy day, the teachers, interns and some of the student athletes competed in a grueling volleyball tournament which brought everyone together before the sun set and the mosquitoes began biting.

After reading Jackson’s book “A School for my Village” which details the first few years of the NAOP’s journey, it was inspiring to see how much progress the organization has achieved. The trip was personally fulfilling as it gave meaning to the seemingly arbitrary fundraising research that had me occupied in Kampala in the preceding weeks. It demonstrated the extent to which Jackson’s vision for implementing a holistic human rights-based program to end the systematic deprivation, poverty and hunger has been realized. The passion that surrounds NAOP is undeniable and has made my job in sharing the organization with new funders less daunting. Nonetheless, the eight weeks that have been assigned to the fundraising project is hardly enough to make as big of an impact as I would have liked. I’m happy to have gotten the chance to crack the fundraising prospective for NAOP, however, there is so much more in store for the Nyaka AIDS Orphan Project.

Don’t miss the opportunity to hear from Jackson himself on October 1st at 12:15pm at the Jerome Greene Room 103 at Columbia Law School.

Learn more about the NAOP and how to get involved at:





Hailing from Zambia, born in South Africa and raised in Botswana, Morag Neill is completing her M.A. in Human Rights Studies at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. Morag’s studies focus on the rights of African refugee women. 

Sex Work in South Africa: Shaming Sex Workers Away From Human Rights

By Maria E. Hengeveld, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University


southafrica1Think about this: If the Netherlands, the country that was one of the first to legalize sex work thirteen years ago, still benefits from its capital’s red light district as one of its main attractions for both national and international tourists, what kinds of questions does this raise about the treatment of sex workers outside the regulated district? For one, it suggests there are very few places on this planet where the shaming and ridiculing of both sex workers and their clients is not socially acceptable.

The Dutch red light district remains a site where women who earn their money through sex—some by choice, some by force—is objectified and ridiculed. It’s fun to walk past them, amusing to observe them, and outright hilarious to shame and fool them[1].

We call it stigma.

Notwithstanding the violations and harsh realities that many sex workers in the Netherlands continue to endure (especially those who are working against their will),  sex workers’ stigma reveals itself in different, and often even grimmer ways in poorer, less equal and more violent countries, where sex work remains illegal.

The South African Context

While the country’s Constitution, ratified in 1996, has often been credited as being the most liberal in the world for safeguarding the rights of vulnerable groups, sex workers remain excluded from constitutional protections. Forced underground, their profession’s stigma reveals itself in daily violations of their basic human rights. This means rape. It means beatings. It means extortion and an increased risk of HIV/AIDS.

How? Angie, a 54-year old street-based sex worker from Cape Town explains. Drawing on 20 years of experience, she says that out of all the risks, brutalities, condescension, and threats she and her colleagues face, most sex workers fear the police the most. According to Angie, “They target you, threaten to arrest you and then demand bribes or sex.” She went on to explain, “After raping the girls they often drop them in deserted areas.”

She also noted “to not leave any trace of evidence, they often use condoms, which they throw away afterwards.”  And just as condoms serve as a tool for erasing a sex crime, they are simultaneously used as evidence for sex workers’ alleged criminal activities. According to Angie, many police men consider carrying many condoms as proof of sex workers exchanging sex for money; one reason why many girls decide to either take less condoms with them or hide them somewhere near their base.


Nosipho, a 29-year old mother from Durban, whose cousin introduced her to sex work on the streets of Durban’s Morningside area in 2008, affirms the terror-tainted relationship with the police.

“We are so used to the beatings and the rapes that, once it’s over and you make your way back to the other girls, you can only try to laugh about it. If you’re raped so many times by clients and police men you develop some sort of flow of coping,” Nosipho acknowledged.

This tends to be the case, unless the brutality is out of the ordinary such as the one night in Durban, only a few months ago, when Nosipho encountered the police. “As always,” Nosipho recalls, “we were well aware of the necessity to not provoke any cops that night, so when I noticed a police car driving towards us, I quietly walked away. This one cop called on me, ordered me in his car and took me to the Burman Bush, a deserted and terrifying place where many girls have been found dead.”

She was given a choice to give him the sex he wanted or be left on her own. Nosipho recalled, “He started to touch me, pulled up my skirt and raped me anally. I couldn’t stop screaming from the pain. Afterwards, I had no option but getting back into his car again.” Because sex work is a criminal offense and given the ever-present risk of incarceration, there was no place to report the abuse Nosipho had suffered.

She also did not think that visiting a clinic for medical help was an option. Nosipho lamented, “The nurses treat you like dirt, will call you ‘bitch’ in front of everybody or tell you that, as a sex worker, you ask for getting raped.”

Next to shaming, many sex workers have complained about the reluctance and refusal of public health centers to provide sex workers with STI tests or treatments for injuries. “And meanwhile”, Angie continues, “people accuse us of spreading HIV.”  Next to exposing them to police brutality, condoning public shaming, and legitimizing the violation of their right to health in clinics, the current criminalized state of the profession also severely weakens sex workers’  negotiating position towards clients. This renders them substantially more vulnerable towards abuse, blackmail, diseases, violence and extortion.

Angie explained, “I remember this very quiet night, when I had hardly any business. A client told me to get in his car and took me all the way to Athlone, where he demanded sex without a condom.  He said he wanted flesh to flesh sex. When I refused he pointed a gun to my head. I didn’t give in, though. Then he decided to only pay me half of the agreed price and dropped me somewhere in Wynberg, very far away from my base.”

Other clients take advantage of sex workers’ exclusion from legal protection by pretending to be cops themselves and demanding sex or money in exchange for letting them go. By rendering sex work illegal, South African laws justify these discriminatory, derogatory and abusive treatments of sex workers. Treatments that not only take a physical and financial toll, but also have the ability to deeply affect sex workers’ sense of self. “You internalize the idea that what you’re doing is wrong,” says Nosipho, “and that you’re a naughty girl, when you’re really just trying to make a living and take care of your children, which is the reason many of us start the work in the first place.”


One organization that offers support for sex workers is the Cape Town based non-profit organization SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce). SWEAT defends and promotes the human rights of sex workers through advocacy, community outreach, skill training, education, legal assistance, counselling and active lobbying for decriminalization. By engaging in dialogues with community leaders, health clinics, trade unions, parliamentarians and police, they seek to empower sex workers and create a more humane work environment. According to SWEAT’s advocacy officer Ntokozo Yingwana, this plethora of violations that sex workers face at the hands of clients, clinics and police are a direct result of the current criminalized state of sex work. She argues that “with regards to funding and supporting programs that protect sex workers’ rights, government’s hands will be tied as long as the work is criminal.” This means that access to condoms, ARVs, STI tests, tailored counselling, and mental health support remains extremely hampered.

Decriminalizing sex work will also positively impact the highly problematic relationship with the police. As Angie put it, “the police will have to take our cases.” And beyond the spheres of the practical, the legal and the physical, there’s the dignity factor too. According to Nosipho, “decriminalization would mean we are recognized as human beings. Everyone makes us believe we’re not worth anything. If we are recognized by law, and if clients know we can report them to the police if they violate our rights this will change the power dynamic between us. The Constitution must recognize my right to choose my profession. That’s all I want.”

And it’s not like South Africa legislation is unfit to move in the right direction; Section 12.2 of the South African Bill of Rights grants all citizens the right to security in and control over their body, but extending this right to transactional sex needs a political champion of the cause. Amidst widespread social and emotional anxieties about sex work, the fear of HIV/AIDS, arguments about the trade’s inherent exploitative nature, and the framing of the matter as a moral or ideological issue, Ntokozo explained that a politician’s push for sex workers’ rights, “could mean political suicide.” Yet, elevating sex work to the legal sphere will in fact empower sex workers to demand safe sex and enables the state to offer targeted health support and sensitize the public, police and clinics.

Thus, whether South Africans like it or not, it is time they recognize that sex workers will always be around and that they are human beings, with a right to health, protection, dignity, and autonomy over their own bodies. Angie and Nosipho’s stories urge South Africans to no longer let emotions, ideological interests, and sexual moralism trump basic human rights. But there is reason for optimism. On May 16th, the external Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) sided with SWEAT and announced they favor the repeal of all laws against consensual adult sex work, thereby explicitly calling for decriminalization. Ntokozo, evidently welcoming this move, believes it provides them with a “strong tool for lobbying” and convincing the government that sex workers’ rights are, indeed, human rights.”

Honor your commitment to equality for all, South Africa. Decriminalize sex work.

Maria Hengenveld studies women’s rights at Columbia University. She is interested in youth and gender in Southern Africa and writes for different websites, such as Africa is a Country and Dutch feminist magazine Tijdschrift Lover

This article previously appeared on “The Feminist Wire” on June 21, 2013. 

[1] Respected newspapers have referred to sex workers’ clients as ‘whore-walkers’ (hoerelopers) on some occasions.

“Not Just a Slogan:” An Interview with Tibi Galis, Executive Director of the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation, on Genocide Prevention

By Michelle Eberhard, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University


Established in 2007, the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation is dedicated to the creation of an international genocide prevention network.  To fulfill its mission, the Institute has developed several education programs, most notably its Raphael Lemkin Seminar, as well as a genocide prevention network in Latin America in 2012.  Following the signing of an agreement with the African Union in February 2013, the Institute will soon be developing a similar network amongst African countries.  Below is an interview with Executive Director of the Auschwitz Institute, Tibi Galis.


Michelle Eberhard: How did you become interested in working in genocide prevention?

Tibi Galis: I grew up in a transition country, in Romania, so it was very interesting to experience in person the impact political change can have on society, and that is why I started being rather passionate about transition studies.  There was a very easy path from transition studies to transitional justice, which became my area of research, and from there to dealing with genocide prevention. This is very much about trying to undo the circumstances that have led to the problems that transitional justice tries to deal with.  It was both an academic and activist journey to getting to working in genocide prevention.


M.E.: What is the biggest challenge for an organization like the Auschwitz Institute in carrying out its mission?

T.G.: Probably the biggest challenge would be what all not-for-profits struggle with, which is the fact that we have to dedicate a lot of our work to securing the funds we need to do the work that we do. At the same time, though, it’s very surprising how the issues that people traditionally think of as challenging have not been so [difficult] in our work. Working with governments is traditionally depicted as being a very difficult process, and our experience is that there is so much interest within governments to make this issue a more effective part of their work that they are very cooperative and very [willing to] work together.


M.E.: In February, the Auschwitz Institute signed an agreement with the African Union to establish the African Network for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention.  In light of the current continental conflicts, including those in Syria and Mali, what do you see as being the greatest obstacles for effective implementation of the initiatives outlined in this agreement?

T.G.: The international climate of conflict, and focusing on ongoing conflicts, can be very obstructive to a continent-wide initiative focusing on prevention.  We’ve seen this a lot, especially in governmental attitudes towards longer-term policies that focus on prevention as opposed to crisis management. Of course, for natural reasons, crisis management is prioritized, and the Auschwitz Institute wants countries to prioritize crisis management. At the same time, that prioritization sometimes translates into giving up on preventive policies altogether, which this program wants to make sure is not an acceptable position for its participating governments.  The greatest challenge, I believe, will be to make sure that governments understand the need for longer-term policies oriented specifically towards prevention.


M.E.: What is your response to individuals who say that it is impossible to prevent genocide, or who think the only way to prevent such atrocities is through military intervention?

T.G.: The response I usually offer is that genocide prevention needs to be understood not as an action, but as a process, like any other political, long-term process.  Genocide can be prevented, and we have the proof of that within societies that function and do not break down into spaces for permanent war between groups. Genocide prevention is indeed creating the environment for groups to be able to manage their political differences within an established framework. […]  Military intervention is crisis management – sometimes military intervention can play a role in preventing further atrocities, but we at the Auschwitz Institute focus on the many, many peaceful ways of engaging societies to prevent genocide, and those methods are actually a lot more successful.


M.E.: How have the Auschwitz Institute’s programs, particularly the Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention, been successful in their mission of preventing genocide?

T.G.: What we have found is that the institutions that have been engaged with the Raphael Lemkin Seminar and with the Auschwitz Institute for a long period [of time], have actually managed to pull through and establish changes in the way they work that resulted from the knowledge imparted through the Seminar and through subsequent collaboration. Many of our participant institutions have refocused their policies to include more group-related policies [and] more assessments of risk-related situations [for minority groups] in their society, and we think that contributed to reshaping policy in those countries, towards the groups that are at risk.


M.E. Human rights work, and specifically work done in the realm of atrocity prevention, can oftentimes be frustrating and complicated, given the need to work with various individuals and organizations from all levels and affiliations (i.e., government, NGOs, civil society).  In spite of this, how do you remain committed to your objectives, and pursue them in a meaningful and positive way?

T.G.: It’s actually not that difficult to engage the actors that are relevant for these issues. What is difficult is to make sure that that engagement is substantive, and that requires drawing on lots of other kinds of work that is connected to research [and the] analysis of existing policies. We are very lucky at the Institute [in regards to] the readiness of NGO, academic, and research communities to share their experience with us and with our governmental partners. Again, the surprise is that both governments and civil society are very ready to work on this.


M.E.: Considering everything the Auschwitz Institute has contributed to the field of genocide prevention, which of its accomplishments are you most proud?

T.G.: I think what we are most proud of at the Auschwitz Institute are really our contributions to the existing trend of establishing national mechanisms for genocide prevention, similar to the Atrocities Prevention Board in the United States, the national commissions for genocide prevention in different African countries, [and] national mechanisms of genocide prevention in different Latin American countries. I think the [national-level policies] of genocide prevention is one of the big steps that humanity has taken to make “never again” a reality, and not just a slogan.


M.E.: What advice do you have for graduate students interested in working in human rights upon the completion of their degree?

T.G.: I would encourage human rights graduate students to be very conscious, even before the completion of their degree, that they need to engage with different organizations in order to be able to work in this field. […]  Actually getting engaged with different topics and different organizations before you graduate – through internships, through focusing your research on them, through basic socializing with an organization by attending their events – helps the chance of entering the field later on, and entering the field from a good position: one where you have realistic expectations related to the field. But beyond that, my advice is to just keep doing what you’re already doing, because once somebody makes the choice [to study] human rights and issues related to them, you are already on a great, rewarding path.


Michelle is a MA candidate in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. Michelle is concentrating in genocide studies, and she worked as a communications intern with the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation.