Archive for Americas

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

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

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

Nicaragua: A Human Rights Crisis

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

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

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

Photo by Carlos Herrera

So, how did Nicaragua get here?

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

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

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

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

Repression of protestors

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

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

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

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

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

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

Criminalization of Protests

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

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

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

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

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

Attack on the Press and NGOs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By Jalileh Garcia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By Jessica Pierson


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

Lives in Limbo: Immigration as a Human Rights Issue

“Trump Zero Tolerance,” artwork by Dan Lacey // Flickr

By Jalileh Garcia, a blog writer for RightsViews and an undergraduate student at Columbia University 

In late June, the event “Lives in Limbo: Immigration as a Human Rights Issue” took place in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The event was a direct response to the current administration’s immigration policies, which were highlighted by the recent and highly controversial separation of children from their parents. In the last couple of months, photographs and voice recordings of children crying “Mami” and “Papa” have overtaken the web. The children, predominantly from Central American countries, some as young as 18 months old, have become the focal point of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy.

Courts set a deadline for July 26 to reunite the children with their families, but the government has stated that hundreds of families were ineligible to be united. In total, 711 children remain in custody, according to the latest tally from the government. Furthermore, many of the children who have been united with their families have likely experienced significant trauma from being separated from their parents and held in detention. In the midst of the country’s ongoing immigration crisis, communities and activists have gathered to try to understand the complex issues facing immigrant children and all of those whose lives remain in limbo. 

The event “Lives in Limbo: Immigration as a Human Rights Issue” took place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in June 2018. // Jalileh Garcia

“Welcome to a conversation about humanity,” said Geeta Pradhan, president of the Cambridge Community Foundation, who opened the event in Cambridge focused on immigration as a human rights issue. Pradhan introduced the panelists, who included Marc McGovern, mayor of Cambridge, human rights attorneys, legal scholars and professors.

McGovern began the conversation by stating, “I’ve heard people say that this is not the America they know.” However, he continued, “We must recognize that the America we know was one founded on the genocide of Native Americans, slavery, Jim Crow laws, Japanese internment, colonialism, and police brutality.” By acknowledging this history, McGovern believes we can recognize the current state of affairs in the United States as a natural progression of history.

Speaker Daniel Kanstroom, a professor of law and director of the International Human Rights program at Boston College spoke next and expounded on the current state of affairs of immigration in the United States.

“We are experiencing a clever attack on immigrants which is marked by brazenness and masked by national security facades, which have inevitably resulted in a brutal violence against human rights,” he said.  

Asylum seekers have been labeled as criminals, even though they have the right to safety, protection, and fair trials under international law. The U.S. government’s actions to separate children from their families has gone so far as to receive criticism from the United Nations. A spokeswoman of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ravina Shamdasani stated, “It is never in the best interests of the child [to be detained] and always constitutes a child rights violation.” Meanwhile, private corporations that own and manage detention centers are profiting off of the detainment of people.

These complex issues call for a deep understanding of the root causes, true solidarity with survivors, and the protection of human rights, the panel agreed.

“So, how did we get here?” asked Kanstroom.

The immigration crisis is the culmination of a decades-old deportation system, which has been structurally created, the panel noted. It is the result of reactionary politics starting with nativist movements; the Chinese Exclusion Act, for example, or when Mexican immigrants were suddenly barred from coming to the United States in 1965 unless they received authorization.

Global politics has also played a significant role. Since the Monroe Doctrine was established in 1823, the expansion of the United States’ control has continued to have significant consequences on its neighbors to the south. U.S. private companies have vacated the Latin American region of its resources by creating massive wealth gaps that have for generations perpetuated cycles of poverty. Simultaneously, corrupt governments have risen to power, many with U.S. aid through CIA or military intervention policies in Central and South America and the Caribbean. These governments have often been emboldened to turn against the interests of their people, creating the circumstances that drive many to flee from their native countries, the panel indicated.

Panelists at the event, “Lives in Limbo: Immigration as a Human Rights Issue,” in June 2018.

In the discourse of immigration, the speakers noted the importance of conversations about mental health. Mojdeh Rohani, executive director at Community Legal Services and a mental health practitioner, expounded on the topic. “What is an asylum seeker?” she asked the crowd. “Well, an asylum seeker has a story. They are survivors of domestic violence, gang violence, persecution, and trauma,” she said. The trauma asylum seekers face begins elsewhere, but it becomes heightened during their time at U.S. government-run detention centers. They come to the United States for safety, but they can be subject in inhumane conditions that exacerbate their trauma. Rohani highlighted that if we keep treating asylum seekers without dignity, “we may be responsible for harboring the next generation of gangs.”  

The panelists at the “Lives in Limbo” event endeavored to come up with initiatives that individuals and communities could partake in to help resolve the immigration crisis.

Michael J. Wishnie, a clinical professor of law at Yale Law School, spoke on the matter. “We must come together, stand up, and bear witness to the human experience.” Wishnie also suggested that people engage in policy changes, grassroots movements and electoral processes.

To build upon this, Roberto Gonzales, professor of education at Harvard, asked the people of Cambridge to “focus efforts on the local level, as every policy is carried out in our localities, and could be affecting our very neighbors.”

However, the panelists acknowledged, the real change needs to come from a change of hearts. Policies cannot be grounded in empathy if people do not feel empathy for immigrant populations and a necessity to protect their human rights. Perhaps the most excruciating fact is that changes of attitude do not happen overnight. If future generations come to prioritize human rights, the people in the United States and abroad can begin to see tangible change to immigration policies that threaten the basic rights of fellow humans.


Jalileh Garcia is an undergraduate student at Columbia University pursuing a Human Rights major with a specialization in Latin America. She is originally from Honduras and is interested in transitional justice, intersectionality, and the interchange of immigration and human rights. She is an executive board member of Columbia University’s Alianza, the Baha’i Club, and the Columbia Students for Human Rights (CUSHR). 

#MeToo – Now What? From Outcry to Action

By Sharon Song, an MA student in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University

“I was an optimistic, driven, hardworking and ambitious young woman, determined to pursue a career in acting… I found myself relentlessly harassed… My life and career was in the hands of people intent on destruction, people who judged and vilified me in ways they never would have done if I was a man… I fought back, I got privacy laws changed.” – Sienna Miller, Actress & Activist

On the final day at the 62nd UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), the United Nations’ largest gathering on gender equality and women’s rights, the energy and anticipation was almost palpable. Journalists and activists convened at the UN headquarters to snatch a seat at a side-event discussing women in the media.

Since the tidal wave of #MeToo posts sprung up last fall in the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual perpetrations against dozens of women, activists across the nation and around the world have attempted to use the rapid momentum in the media to create lasting cultural change. The digital media has become a platform to speak out, retort, and start a dialogue to critically reflect on statements that were once considered harmless or largely ignored. More than 100 high-powered men across industries now stand accused of sexual harassment and misconduct. Many have fallen from grace, and others have been forced to resign. Perhaps for the first time in history, we’re seeing accountability played out in real time. There’s no denying that this moment is a transformative movement in social change. But we have now come to a vexing question: what now?

An event at the UN discussed how the media can be a powerful player in driving gender equality as part of the Sustainable Development Agenda. // UN Women

Addressing a largely female crowd, actress and activist Sienna Miller provided opening remarks at the event, which was organized by UN Women, The Guardian, and the Permanent Mission of Norway to the UN. Miller shared her own story of living her life in the spotlight, the paparazzi-frenzy that seems to be less forgiving towards women, and moments when she felt professionally undervalued and undermined because of her gender. The actress turned down a role in a Broadway production after learning that she was offered less than half of what her male co-star was being paid. She said, “It turned out to be a pivotal moment in my life. Not because I did it. But because I didn’t.”

Miller’s personal account of gender discrimination was a stark reminder of the glaring blind spot of the #MeToo movement and its lack of inclusivity. Because the reality is this: not all women have the luxury of saying no to a paycheck. Risking your livelihood as a member of the upper class in affluent Los Angeles is not the same as risking your livelihood working a blue-collar job in middle-town America.

At the same time, you cannot dismiss the pivotal role Hollywood power players have in the discourse of gender discrimination. After all, it is the famous faces behind the narratives that sparked the #MeToo conversation on the world stage in the first place. The panel discussion included Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of UN Women, who spoke on the solidarity that could be achieved between women in Hollywood and women in rural parts of the world. She emphasized that there is an opportunity for women in the public eye to “speak for other women who are outside and invisible.”

There is an initiative in Hollywood that is attempting to connect the voices between A-list movie stars and women working blue-collar jobs. The Time’s Up organization – spearheaded by actress Reese Witherspoon – is striving to stamp out patriarchy for all women, regardless of class. To date, the organization has raised more than $20 million dollars to provide legal defense funds for low-income women who have experienced sexual harassment and abuse. Perhaps we’ll soon see a Hollywood-stamped initiative that can cross borders to aid women in the Global South with little power and fewer resources. Mlambo-Ngcuka says seeing powerful men being held accountable on the public stage is not only sending a message to rural parts of the globe, but to younger generations: “Accountability says to young men that this is not normal, this is not right.”

It’s safe to say that the reckoning has begun. In December 2017, a group of House and Senate lawmakers introduced bipartisan legislation to respond to sexual harassment in Congress. The bill, named the Member and Employee Training and Oversight On (ME TOO) Congress Act, attempts to overhaul the system for filing and settling harassment claims made by congressional employees. The power of the #hashtag is bringing real political change to the U.S.

Pamella Sittoni, the managing editor of EastAfrican, speaks at the panel event, “Women in the Media: From Outcry to Action.” // UN Women

The speakers at the CSW panel discussion attempted to offer concrete solutions in the aftermath of #MeToo, in order to successfully initiate positive change and leave no individuals – regardless of race and class – behind. Pamella Sittoni, the managing editor of EastAfrican, a weekly newspaper published in Kenya, stressed the need for #MeToo to be seen as a genderless movement. She said #MeToo is not a women’s movement but a “humanity movement” about respecting dignity. She then emphasized the need for more men in leadership positions to be at the forefront in the discussions of gender equality: “Men shouldn’t feel that this is something targeting them. It’s a movement about a good world for all of us.”

In addition, the revelations learned through the watershed movement need to be spelled out on paper. Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of UN Women, argued that workplaces must review anti-harassment policies to ensure that gender-based discrimination is included. Changes must be made alongside the ongoing conversations facilitated by the #MeToo movement: “Sustain it, institutionalize it and make sure that it is reflected in the policies at the workplace.” She also called on journalists in the room to stay with the story of #MeToo and gender discrimination and not to stop writing until gender equality is reached.

While the panel discussion and the energy has progressed exponentially from just last year, I found the conversation to be overly polite and frustratingly surface-level. More than 8,000 people from 1,121 civil society organizations have registered for the CSW gathering this year – making it the largest number of attendees to date. Clearly, there is a widespread consciousness of feminist ideas in the public space across the globe. If we want structural change and solidarity to be achieved amongst feminists in all parts of the world, harder questions need to be addressed. What are the struggles of the women who are less visible and have less resources? How does their narrative connect to the women in Hollywood? How can the movement change to be more inviting towards men? What other angles can journalists take to effectively cover the #MeToo movement instead of simply being a “gotcha” game?

Perhaps it isn’t fair to expect a two-hour panel discussion to successfully tackle all the muddled areas that have emerged with the #MeToo movement. But it’s clear that a corner has been turned, and the closing remarks by Norway’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Ine Marie Eriksen Soreide couldn’t have been more fitting. “There is no going back after this,” she said.


Sharon Song is a TV news personality in New York City, best known for anchoring behind the weather desk and reporting on entertainment news. She is also a national writer for FOX News. Sharon is currently getting her master’s degree in Human Rights at Columbia University. Prior to that, she was a Weather Anchor/Entertainment Reporter for Fios 1 News. ​She was also the Headlines News Reporter for Channel One News and a Weather Anchor/ Reporter for KULR-8 NBC News. Sharon is a big believer in giving back to the community. Off the air, you can catch her emceeing and hosting charity galas for numerous Tri-State organizations. She attended Boston University where she earned her bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism with a minor in religion. 

Unjust Justice: A Case of American Exceptionalism

By Olivia Heffernan, a master’s candidate at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs 

The United States represents four percent of the world’s population but is home to 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. These disproportionate figures, and the financial and emotional burdens of mass incarceration in America, were the topic of a recent discussion at Columbia University between former Mayor of Philadelphia Michael Nutter and Obama administration official Elias Alcantara. The discussion, hosted by the Criminal Justice Reform Working Group (CJR) at the School of International and Public Affairs, brought together two panelists well suited to discuss criminal justice policy—its challenges, similarities and differences—on city and federal levels.

As a country that prides itself on its values of freedom and equality, the United States demonstrates a gaping contradiction with its discriminatory and broken justice system. Spikes in incarceration rates are often attributed to the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, signed by former President Bill Clinton, which implemented a series of policies that disproportionately impacted racial minorities. The law, the largest crime bill in the history of the United States, included a “three strikes” mandatory life sentence for repeat offenders. As a result of this and other criminal justice policies, blacks are incarcerated in state prisons at more than five times the rate of whites. Furthermore, at any given time, approximately 20 percent of the 2.3 million incarcerated persons in the U.S. have yet to be convicted; they are simply waiting for their day in court. These figures run antithetical to U.S. values as a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which in Article 11 recognizes the “right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial.”

Former Mayor of Philadelphia Michael Nutter (right) and Obama administration official Elias Alcantara (left) speak at Columbia University in December. // Nitin Magima

An outspoken advocate for fair policing policies, Nutter opened the discussion by distinguishing the difference between incarceration and rehabilitation. The day a person enters jail is the day the justice system must plan for their release, he said. Reentry efforts are part and parcel to crime reduction. The number one factor contributing to recidivism rates is employment post incarceration, according to Nutter. “It’s a vicious circle. The current programs, rules and institutions in place are not designed to help the formerly incarcerated reenter society and get jobs,” he said.  

Nutter also spoke to the pressure politicians face to portray themselves as tough on crime. As Mayor of Philadelphia for two terms, he recalled taking an oath to protect the citizens of his city and the challenges that came with trying to strike a balance between being smart and tough. “It is definitely a balancing act, but the two should not be seen as mutually exclusive,” he said.

Some of the faults of the criminal justice system can be attributed to the fact that there is no uniform criminal justice policy. With over 18,000 police departments and thousands of mayors in the United States, there is confusion, limited resources and conflicting power dynamics. Amidst all of these moving parts, it is possible to lose sight of the purpose of a criminal justice system: justice, not money, accolades, approval ratings or reelection. At the end of the day these are people. Nutter urged attendees “to look at folks for who they are now, not for what they had done or been convicted of, because this is the first and most crucial step to ending mass incarceration.”

Alcantara, who during his tenure in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs during the Obama administration established strategic partnerships with local and national leaders on criminal justice reform, discussed his relationship with police and the law as a young man of color growing up in the Bronx. He traced the issue of mass incarceration and disproportionate effects of the criminal justice system on men of color to slavery. “Philosophically, we have a punishment paradigm that doesn’t make sense and what is most often forgotten is that our justice system is broken. Period,” Alcantara said.

Members of the Criminal Justice Reform Working Group at Columbia University met with former Mayor Michael Nutter and Obama administration official Elias Alcantara. // Kier Joy

However, Alcantara also made a point to mention that despite a broken justice system, there are options to move the country in the right direction and toward meaningful reform. He highlighted the fact that this is largely a bipartisan issue and referenced working with the ultra-conservative Koch brothers on criminal justice policy reform to demonstrate that both sides of the political spectrum must be present at the table for policy to pass and be effective. Unfortunately, despite the major improvements that New York and other major U.S. cities have made in reforming and reducing prison populations, these successes also come amidst “discouraging signals from President Trump that may portend a return to reflexive over-reliance upon incarceration,” according to Politico.

When asked where we can go from here, Alcantara suggested that efforts be focused on either end of the justice system: policing and reentry are the most effective means of challenging high incarceration rates, he said. He also emphasized the importance of engaging both jail and law enforcement in dialogue about the justice system. For example, the New York Bar Association’s recent report on New York City’s progress in reducing its jail population cited the following initiatives as driving successful criminal justice reform: early release for prisoners under new, less harsh sentencing guidelines, de-escalation trainings for police officers, and expanded re-entry programs focusing on employment, education and mental health.

Former Mayor of Philadelphia Michael Nutter spoke about the pressures faced by politicians to portray themselves as tough on crime. // Kier Joy

Finally, Alcantara recommended to audience members and politicians, in particular, to visit prison. “Prisons are one of the few institutions we can be oblivious to until you go and visit them,” he said. Alcantara cited President Obama’s visit to el Reno prison outside of Oklahoma City in 2015 as an example. As the first president ever to visit a federal prison, Obama set a new precedent and altered the dialogue and philosophies around the criminal justice system, Alcantara said.

Nutter closed the discussion by saying, “The real underlying question behind this whole problem is: when you finishing serving your time, when is your time over?” Unfortunately, in today’s system, a person’s mistake, or in many cases the justice system’s mistake, dictate a person’s trajectory for the rest of his or her life.

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

Human Rights Futures

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

Is the human rights movement on the road to nowhere? Last Thursday, the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University hosted a book launch and panel discussion on “Human Rights Futures,” edited by Stephen Hopgood, Jack Snyder and Leslie Vinjamuri. The book brings together 15 mainstream human rights scholars and their critics to debate alternative futures for the human rights movement.

The panel conversation was moderated by Andrew Nathan, professor of political science at Columbia University, and included four contributors to the book: Jack Snyder, Belfer Professor of International Relations at Columbia University; Shereen Hertel, editor of the Journal of Human Rights; Alexander Cooley, director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University; and Leslie Vinjamuri, director of the Centre on Conflict, Rights and Justice at SOAS, University of London. Other panelists included Aryeh Neier, co-founder of Human Rights Watch (HRW) and president emeritus of the Open Society Foundations; Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa Division; and Sarah Mendehlson, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Economic and Social Council.  

The International Criminal Court in 2010 // josef.stuefer // Flickr

The discussion between these human rights experts quickly zeroed in on the growing strategic backlash against the human rights field. This phenomenon takes many forms, from the rejection of the International Criminal Court by some countries in Africa to the delegitimizing of activists as “foreign agents” in Russia and creation of counter-norms in President Putin’s defense of “traditional values” against multiculturalism, feminism and homosexuality. Typically viewed as a problem confined to authoritarian and transitional states in the Global South, recent events in the U.S., U.K. and Europe demonstrate that the West is not immune. As Whitson described it, the present moment we find ourselves in is “bad, apocalyptically bad, with a unique feature of being cheer-led by an authoritarian White House.”

The panel was asked whether this represented a historical regression, or just the usual arm wrestling between governments and their critics? The “spiral model” in theories of human rights promotion, after all, anticipates some degree of backlash. Cooley argued that what makes the current backlash different is that it is not confined to the international human rights architecture. It is geopolitical in nature and aimed against the global governance architecture established in the 1980s and 90s. Mendehlson, from her experience at USAID and the U.N., agreed, adding that it is not just human rights groups under attack, but also environmental and humanitarian groups. “We are seeing the entire business model of external funding to local groups being questioned, and often under the cover of sovereignty.”

Protestors march against Trump in Melbourne // Corey Oakley // Flickr

What has caused this backlash? Mendehlson thought the overly legalistic approach of the international human rights movement had resulted in a disconnect between the efforts of international organizations and local populations. “Elevating the local voice is critical,” she said. Vinjamuri queried whether international human rights organizations, especially those headquartered in the United States, engendered a degree of suspicion among the local population. These organisations are often seen as representing the long arm of the U.S. government, closely aligned with U.S. foreign policy and potentially also with its intelligence agencies.

The growing localization of universalistic human rights language is one of the alternative approaches to human rights advocacy considered in the book. It reduces the risk that human rights advocates will be labelled “handmaidens of imperialism.” Whitson said she had observed this process first-hand. “Over the past 15 years, Human Rights Watch has spent time becoming local organizations in the countries we are working in.” As a result, HRW now spends less time convincing local audiences of its neutral credentials and more time on the important work of rights advocacy.  

The relationship between international and local groups is also more nuanced now. Neier described it as symbiotic. Hertel observed that local groups strategically use their alliance with international organizations to their advantage, focusing on where the expertise and resources lie.  

Columbia University hosted a book launch and panel discussion on “Human Rights Futures” in November. // Ayesha Amin

The panel ended with some final observations on how the human rights movement should adapt to our new reality. For example, how can we achieve human rights in places where the old playbook of “legalism, moralism and universalism” is not available to us, or no longer works? Synder argued that the necessary conditions for successfully achieving human rights outcomes are peace and democracy. His prescription for struggling human rights advocates today? Engender mass social movements in connection with a progressive political party.

Neier thought Snyder overstated the connection between democracy and human rights. He observed that in countries at the point of democratization, ethnic nationalism often becomes a more significant force than it was previously. “It is not accidental that the democratization of Myanmar has been accompanied by horrendous abuses against the Rohingya,” he said. What is required is to have respect for human rights principles baked into the transition process, because the aftermath might be too late.

Ayesha Amin is a New Zealander currently pursuing her Master of Public Administration degree at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs concentrating in International Security Policy. She holds a graduate degree in international relations and human rights, an L.L.B., and a B.A. in economics. Her interests include contemporary critiques of human rights, corporations and human rights compliance, and the right to self-determination. Ayesha is a blog writer for RightsViews.

What of those who stood by and watched? Reckoning with Racial Injustice in the U.S.

By Olivia Heffernan, a master’s candidate at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs 

“If you want the American dream, go to Canada,” Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, told audience members during Thursday night’s lecture, “Reckoning with Racial Injustice in the United States,” hosted by NYU Law School’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice and the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ).

Walker and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund Sherrilyn Ifill engaged in a provocative conversation moderated by David Tolbert, president of ICTJ. Tolbert began the panel by stressing the importance of having “unsettling dialogues” among groups at opposite ends of the justice spectrum in order to foster innovative thinking, understanding, and eventually action. Coinciding with the one-year anniversary of Trump’s election, a discussion about truth, justice and reconciliation felt particularly pertinent given the President’s record on racial injustice. Trump’s recalcitrant response to Charlottesville and his public condemnations of immigrants have exacerbated racial tensions in the United States, in many ways emboldening white supremacists to act in ways previously deemed inappropriate. CNN reports that 60 percent of Americans believe racism to be a problem in the U.S., an increase of 10 percent since 2009.  

Asked to address the structural causes behind racial injustice in the United States, Walker pointed to the United States’ desperate need to display a narrative of “exceptionalism,” which has formed a history based on lies. The failure of the United States to acknowledge a history plagued by injustice, for example, has impaired the country from making any progress, he said. Truth and reconciliation requires recognizing the existence of wrongs and accepting responsibility for them. There is no clarity without truth. Furthermore, in order to remediate racial discrimination, we must no longer see racism as solely affecting African Americans, but rather as a pervasive injustice that affects every person and as a threat to our democracy.

The same CNN report mentioned above also found that “87 percent of black Americans say black people face a lot of discrimination in the United States, but only 49 percent of white Americans say the same thing.” This large discrepancy demonstrates the unwillingness of many white Americans to admit to widespread racial intolerance even in the presence of clear evidence.

A lecture on racial injustice in the United States was hosted by NYU Law School and the International Center for Transitional Justice. // NYU CHR&GJ

Similarly, Ifill stressed the importance of truth telling in the process of reconciling our past and present. We must undo the mythologies surrounding racial violence and look at the role of the average person in either perpetuating or rejecting discrimination. “What of the crowd? What of the people who watched?” she asked, making the point that silence or inaction in cases of racial discrimination is another form of complicity. Shame and fear produce silence, and in silence lies develop, along with a refusal to acknowledge and apologize, she said.

The panel agreed that public education and truth telling are prerequisites to precipitate activism and real reform. Justice and reconciliation are processes that begin with confronting the truth, Ifill said, followed by thinking about who you are in relation to that truth and ending with a decision about what to do with that truth and your relation to it.

In human rights theory and practice, justice and reconciliation are means through which parties reckon with past injustice, whether that be something as widespread as genocide or more micro-level disputes among individuals. Increasingly, human rights theorists have turned to reconciliation methods such as truth commissions, as seen in South Africa post-apartheid, or Gacaca Courts used after the Rwandan genocide, and more recently, through restorative justice in mediating criminal court cases and reparations to the families of former slaves of Georgetown University, for example. To demonstrate the value of reconciliation in its aim to address historical wrongs as means of facilitating present-day conflict resolution, Institute for the Study of Human Rights director Elazar Barkan’s article, “Truth and Reconciliation in History,” provides three case studies that trace the origins of reconciliation and its effectiveness in creating a shared narrative across country and ethnic boundaries.

When speaking truth to power, we must take into account the environment and institutions that enable discrimination, whether racial, economic or religion-based. Ifill urged the audience to not accept the current state of inequality and prejudice as inevitable. Police brutality and an unjust criminal justice system from Eric Garner to the Central Park Five are direct products of decisions we have made and the structures we have created that perpetuate them. In other words, our challenge is not only racism, it is also elitism and classism and the ubiquitous trends that enable widespread inequality.

Fortunately, Walker has hope, noting that he believes where we are now is the closest we have come to having a national conversation about race. So, let’s not run to Canada quite yet.

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