Archive for Asia and the Pacific

New Zealand’s Push for Sustainable Development

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s Push for Sustainable Development

The International Conference on Sustainable Development provided a forum for academia, government, civil society, UN agencies and the private sector to come together to share discussion on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This year, from September 26 to 28 2018, the Conference took place on multiple campuses around the world, making it a truly global event.

On the second day of the 6th annual International Conference on Sustainable Development, Columbia University had the privilege of hearing Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand speak on the SDGs.

Professor Jeffrey Sachs, the Director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, introduced Prime Minister Ardern to roaring applause in Alfred Lerner Hall.

To begin her speech, Ardern discussed injustice and the impact of politics around the world. Ardern says, “if there is one thing we hate, it is injustice. We try to do it right by one another. Perhaps it comes from being a thousand miles from anywhere, isolated and completely reliant on one another… but we are acutely aware of the impact we have on the world and the rest of the world has on us.” As a politician, Ardern says that “politics has an increasing duty, but values do not. Values have always been my starting point. I signed up for a political party when I was 17 years old, not because I was looking for a career, but perhaps, naively, I wanted to change the world.”

As one of the youngest world leaders, Ardern’s strive towards social justice, environmentalism and prosperity is unique. Although New Zealand is redefining success related to the sustainability, Ardern agrees that “SDGs haven’t been treated as a given. Even New Zealand has a long way to go.” Nevertheless, she points out New Zealand is establishing new measures of national achievement that goes beyond growth. “We have, for instance, created a tool called the “living standards framework” that puts the notions of sustainable, intergenerational wellbeing in the seat of different decision-making processes we have,” Ardern said. “Our statistics department, at the moment, is working on an ambitious project called “social indicators within New Zealand” that will help create a set of indicators across dimensions that include current picture models of New Zealand: economic, cultural, social and environmental. This will ultimately help us monitor our delivery of the SDGs.”

Ending her speech on a high note, Ardern ties sustainable development, social justice and politics, saying that “as politicians, we all have choices in how we respond. We can work hard, or we can build a response, our choice in New Zealand is action.”

After Ardern’s inspirational speech, Sachs led a 15-minute question panel related to New Zealand’s difficult agricultural emissions, climate change, migration, the US-China trade war, development aid, the happiness index and youth.

Difficult Agricultural Emissions

Nearly half of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions comes from agriculture. Entering the first question, Sach asks Ardern about New Zealand’s solution for agricultural emissions. “It is difficult for us on the agricultural side. Our emissions profile is forty eight percent agricultural emissions. That makes us really unique – but one of the points that I am trying to make is that we’ve been doing research with the Global Research Alliance to do what we can to try and literally alter the way we farm to reduce our emissions profile, ” Ardern says, “we all have to address this challenge because it comes at a risk to our food insecurity as well.”

Climate Change

Next, Sachs begins the climate change discussion with Australia’s struggle with fossil fuel emissions. He then asks what advice New Zealand has for Australia. Confidently, Ardern says that “we can all agree about the problem that [climate change] presents, but there are huge interests in maintaining the status quo – that are hard to shift. We recently announced that we will not be issuing offshore oil and gas exploration permits in New Zealand. Those are tough calls, those are industries and jobs. We have a duty of care to those people who have relied on those industries and jobs. So, I understand what Australia is confronting and what others are confronting, but we have a duty as well.”

Identity Politics and Migration

Moving on, Sachs discusses identity politics and migration in New Zealand. In a 2013 consensus, there were approximately 600,000 Indigenous people identifying as Māori in New Zealand, making up roughly fifteen percent of the national population. Sach asks if Ardern could reflect on New Zealand’s special learning about [Indigenous culture]. “Indigenous New Zealand – that relationship dictates that way we look as a government and it is incredibly important to us and it makes us relatively unique… But, I also wanted to discuss the issues of migration. I spoke briefly about the issues of globalization… what I see around the world is a growing sense of insecurity. Whether its financial insecurity, it seems that you are not guaranteed a roof over your head, a stable job or a stable income,” Ardern says, “as progressives, we need to respond to that. And the way progressives respond is we need to be inclusive and we need to offer decent wages and conditions. This needs to apply to issues of migration… The reforms we go through is very much focused on fixing [this]….”

US – China Trade War

On foreign policy, Sachs says that “maybe the biggest divide, politically, is the US trade war on China what should be done about this?” Ardern says that “we should stick to rules, and regardless to whose engaged, rely on predictability, order and rules… we need to recognize our responsibility we have to each other, not just to our people, but to each other as well. Trade wars benefit no one, and they particularly punish our smaller nations with a distinct lack of power. … We base our power on the size of our economies and the size of population and it is really a rejection of multilateralism and I push back on that…”

Lack of Development Aid

According to the World’s Happiness Report, New Zealand ranks #8 in the world. Sachs stated that “New Zealand is on course to achieving all 17 SDGs, which is extremely exciting and one of the happiest places in the world.” However, after much applause, Sachs wanted to critic New Zealand on their lack of development aid, indicating that it was “quite low… something like .2 of one percent.” According to the SDGs, the target for New Zealand’s development aid is 0.7. To counter, Ardern says “in our last budget, we recognized that we had to boost our aid and we need to do our best – so we increased our aid by 700 million dollars…”

From 2015 – 2018, New Zealand’s aid budget is said to include $1B in the Pacific, $600M in economic development and $200M in ASEAN. In addition, issues such as environment, climate change, gender equality, women’s empowerment and human rights issues will be addressed in the aid provided. According to New Zealand’s aid program, “this will help deliver sustainable, inclusive outcomes.”

To Young Women Around the World

Lastly, at 38, Ardern is New Zealand’s youngest ever woman leader. Evidently, she poses as an inspiration and role model to youth around the world. When speaking to, specifically, young women around the world, Ardern says “I do think that globally, we need to make politics a more attractive place to be – we need to make it a more attractive choice. But beyond that, I have noticed, that at least in my country, when I talk to young women about their aspirations, even at a young age, I see that they are opting out. I often make the assumption that it comes down to confidence. I make that assumption because I was exactly the same… There is a tendency for young women to say that you don’t have everything that it takes – to have a tiny little seed of doubt… Yes, we have a huge amount of work to do – we need to make our workplace more flexible, [create] greater options and opportunities to address our conscience minds. Yes, we must do all of that, but we also have to boost our women’s confidence and support them into those roles too – and help them overcome those tiny seeds of doubt because if we don’t, we will be more the poorer.”

The International Conference on Sustainable Development has intersected the SDGs with issues related to migration, human rights, foreign policy and environmentalism. Prime Minister Ardern and New Zealand’s effort to meet the SDGs is a breath of fresh air, challenging the political atmosphere in the U.S. today.

For information on the International Conference on Sustainable Development, check out ICSD’s website.


By Juana Lee

Columbia Students Stand in Solidarity with Jailed Reuters Journalists

By Ashley E. Chappo, editor of RightsViews and a graduate of Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and Columbia Journalism School

Walk into Pulitzer Hall lobby at Columbia Journalism School today, and you might notice the students dressed in all black, holding signs that read “#FreeWaLoneKyawSoeOo” and “Journalism is not a crime.”

It’s a moment of advocacy and solidarity on Columbia’s Morningside campus on behalf of Reuters journalists Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, who were sentenced to seven years in prison on September 3, 2018 by a Myanmar judge after being found guilty of violating a decades-old law on state secrets. The Burmese nationals had been investigating military crackdowns and human rights violations in Rakhine state, including the massacre of 10 Rohingya men in Rakhine’s Inn Dinn village on September 2, 2017.

Columbia Journalism students dressed in all black and held signs that read “#FreeWaLoneKyawSoeOo” and “Journalism is not a crime” on behalf of their imprisoned colleagues in Myanmar. // Thor Neureiter

The advocacy effort at the journalism school in New York City was organized mainly by students in professor Ann Cooper’s reporting class. Beginning at 11 a.m. in Pulitzer Hall, the students dressed in black and held up signs, many handwritten in black ink on dry erase boards, with messages of support for the Burmese journalists. The students were inspired by the earlier protest efforts led by the Protection Committee for Myanmar Journalists who began wearing black T-shirts to “signify the dark age of media freedom” and advocate for the release of their colleagues, according to Reuters. The entire journalism school was asked to participate in person or across social media, and students from other professional schools at Columbia were also invited.

The September ruling by the Myanmar judge to jail the journalists for seven years has been widely condemned by world leaders, press freedom organizations, and human rights advocates as an attack on press freedom and human rights, which threatens journalists and human beings everywhere. Following the arrests, the United Nations called for the immediate release of the jailed journalists. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said the court’s recent ruling is a “travesty of justice” and “shocking,” adding that the journalist’s information on the violence in Rakhine state against Rohingya Muslims is “of public interest.”

While advocacy efforts such as the one at Columbia may seem merely symbolic, they hold special significance for the jailed journalists and reporters around the world who face similar risks.

“From my eight years as executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, I know how much it means for journalists and their families to hear messages of support, to know that they are not forgotten,” professor Cooper told RightsViews. “Journalists in many countries work in very challenging press freedom conditions. It’s important for us, no matter where we live and work, to defend the rights of all journalists to report the news independently, without fear of threats or violence.”

A poster for the advocacy efforts at Columbia Journalism School on September 14, 2018. The organizers urged other students and faculty from across Columbia to dress in black and stand in solidarity with the imprisoned Burmese journalists. // Melody Jiang

The Burmese reporters were first detained on December 12, 2017 outside of Yangon. Reuters published the journalists’ special report on the killings of the Rohingya under the title “Massacre in Myanmar” on February 8, 2018 while they awaited trial behind bars. The report notes “the Reuters investigation of the Inn Din massacre was what prompted Myanmar police authorities to arrest two of the news agency’s reporters.”

Efforts to support Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo while in detention began last year at Columbia when journalism students collected books to send to the reporters in prison following a specific request for books by Wa Lone.

“I think we all hoped that would help them pass some weeks or months until they were freed, because the court case against them was so ridiculous. But now they face seven years in prison. So our new students this fall have organized an effort to tell them, once again, you are not forgotten,” Cooper said.

Around seventeen of Cooper’s current reporting students from the Class of 2019 took the lead in organizing the day of advocacy on behalf of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.

“Journalism students, especially those interested in doing international reporting, should be aware that if these types of press restrictions and anti-press actions are not confronted, it will make it harder for them to do their jobs in the future,” said Haleluya Hadero, a student in Cooper’s reporting class this fall, to RightsViews. “As it is commonly said at the J-School, journalism is a public service, and we all need to work hard to protect the integrity and freedom of the press around the world.”

The action at Columbia University follows at the heels of a particularly troubling response from Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi on the court ruling. Speaking on Thursday at the World Economic Forum in Hanoi, Vietnam, she denied claims that the court’s decision violates freedom of expression and said that the journalists are free to appeal the decision

“They were not jailed because they were journalists,” she said. “The sentence has been passed on them because the court has decided that they have broken the Official Secrets Act.”

Students gathered on the steps in front of Columbia Journalism School during a day of advocacy on behalf of the jailed Reuters journalists. // Thor Neureiter

This statement from the once-esteemed Nobel Peace Prize winner has been decried as “shameful” by Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson wrote in The Globe and Mail, “Rarely does an event more clearly embody a country’s human-rights decline than the Myanmar court’s sentencing of two Reuters journalists.”

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley expressed her own disproval with Myanmar’s leader on Twitter, tweeting, “First in denial about the abuse the Burmese military place on the Rohingya, now justifying the imprisonment of the two Reuters reporters who reported on the ethnic cleansing. Unbelievable.”

The seven-year prison sentence serves as a reminder of the challenges and limitations journalists face in doing their jobs and defending human rights. These realities are particularly pertinent for students of Columbia Journalism School, many of whom dream of future careers in international and conflict reporting.

And now, more than ever, the stakes are especially high. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that for the second year in a row the number of journalists imprisoned for their work has reached a historical high. The advocacy efforts on campus help the students to recognize the importance of the lessons they learn in the classroom on keeping themselves and their sources safe in difficult environments.

“It’s my goal to make sure that all of our students leave journalism school with a healthy appreciation of the risks faced by so many reporters around the world— and with the skills and knowledge to assess and deal with those risks,” Cooper said. The recent case of the Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo hits particularly close to home for some of Cooper’s students. One who graduated this past May worked with Wa Lone at a newspaper in Myanmar, and another had met Wa Lone’s brother while reporting from the country.

“It is important for us— as Americans or even non-citizens living in the United States, and especially as journalists— to advocate for our own who are imprisoned for simply doing their jobs,” Haleluya said. “Journalism is a service not only to the public, but also to our colleagues, wherever they might be.”


Ashley E. Chappo is a recent graduate of Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs, where she studied human rights and international conflict resolution, and Columbia Journalism School, where she studied multimedia and investigative reporting. You can follow her on Twitter @AshleyChappo. She is editor of RightsViews. 

Children Languishing Behind Bars: A Grim Reality of Indian Prisons

By Vasudev Singh and Karan Trehan, students of law in India at RML National Law University and NALSAR University of Law, respectively. 

recent revelation by the Government of India concerns the condition of children residing in prisons with their mothers and raises an important question regarding the basic human rights guaranteed to these children. As of 2015, Indian prisons accommodate some 419,623 prisoners (including pre-trial detainees/remand prisoners). Out of them, 4.3 percent— or around 18,000— are women. Women who face trial or who are found guilty of a crime are allowed to keep their children with them during their time in jail. Approximately 1,866 children lived in prison with their mothers at the end of 2015, according to prison statistics. 

According to the Indian constitution, the state governments are assigned to the administration and management of prisons. This means that the state governments can make prison laws according to their own discretion and requirements. However, these state powers remain subject to other centrally-enacted laws such as the Prisons Act, 1894. As a result, there exists a difference in the laws regarding the management of prisons and welfare of the prison population.

To date, the law dealing with the protection of children lodged in prisons with their mothers has not been uniformly codified under any act or statute in India and varies among different states. The Supreme Court of India, in the case of R.D Upadhyay v. State of A.P, AIR 2006 SC 1946, framed several guidelines for the protection and development of these children. The guidelines were framed around key areas requiring urgent intervention such as food, medical facilities, accommodation, age of residence, education and recreation facilities. Pursuant to these guidelines, different states amended their jail manuals and included provisions concerning the welfare of children and mothers in prisons. 

However, various reports have pointed toward the abysmal state of affairs in which these children have been forced to live in Indian prisons. The non-uniform and poor implementation of existing rules and guidelines has further aggravated the condition.

Approximately 1,866 children lived in prison with their mothers at the end of 2015. // Feminisminindia.com

The age up to which children are allowed to stay with their mothers in prisons varies among the states, for example. In states such as Delhi and Assam, the children are allowed to stay with their mothers until they are 6 years old. Whereas, in Bihar, they are allowed to stay only up to 2 years.

The diet, medical and educational facilities provided to children in various states also starkly varies. In many states, children below 5 years old are provided with the same food as other inmates. Furthermore, due to the lack of adequate infrastructure and funding, special medical facilities are not available in every state to look after the children. Reports have found that only the prisons in metropolitan cities such as Delhi, Chandigarh, and Mumbai have medical facilities equipped to cater to the needs of children. In other states, children are sent to nearby centers for education purposes due to the lack of a facility of formal schooling. Moreover, there are no special provisions for food, medical, educational and recreational facilities for women prisoners with children.

These non-uniform laws have left behind major inequality. Several instances of gross human rights violations have also been reported where children have been lodged alongside criminals. Thus, some children are currently living in a state of extreme neglect. Also, due to the absence of any enforcement or grievance mechanism to keep check on the implementation of rules and guidelines, the promise of ensuring a healthy upbringing for children behind bars gets defeated. Thus, the guidelines passed by the Supreme Court and the existing provisions in different states have failed to fulfill their intended purpose, rendering them futile.

Analyzing the laws of various countries, it is clear amended policy should address several important concerns. The first and foremost policy implementation should be the development of infrastructure and facilities, including a necessary increase in funding to prisons across the country. Modernization of the prisons would ensure that children have better living conditions and can lead a more dignified life. In addition, children should be allowed to remain with their mothers until they reach age of 6 years old, with the “best interest” of the child of the utmost importance. Cases involving issues of domestic violence should be taken into consideration, for example.

Special provisions for dietary, educational, medical and recreational facilities should also be made available for children and their mothers in all prisons. These proposed provisions will augment the mental as well as physical growth of children at such a tender age. Maintenance of separate prisons solely for the mothers and their children should be considered by the government. In such prisons, there would be a better atmosphere for parenting, providing more harmonious living conditions for the children and protecting them from violence which could result from living with the general prison population. Regular inspection of prisons should also be carried out. An ombudsman should be appointed for redressal of grievances and an authority should be created to ensure the enforcement of guidelines.

State governments should further endeavor to include the above-mentioned recommendations in jail manuals to better ensure equal treatment of children residing in prisons across the country. 

Article 21 of the Indian constitution guarantees the right to live with human dignity to every person. The Directive Principles enshrined within the Constitution also provide that suitable opportunities be given to children to ensure a healthy manner of development. Furthermore, India has ratified various international conventions, such as the UNCRC, which further obliges the Indian government to work toward the development of conditions beneficial to the well-being of the children. Therefore, the government should recognize the need of the hour and make necessary amendments to policy so as to meet its international as well as constitutional obligations.


Vasudev Singh is a student at RML National Law University, Lucknow. His research interests include health rights, environmental rights and prisoner rights.

Karan Trehan is a student at NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad. His research interests include children rights, refugee rights and education rights.

Ensuring Healthcare in India by Going Beyond Politics

By Ananye Krishna, a student at Nalsar University of Law, Hyderabad, India

The government of India launched the Ayushman Bharat – National Health Protection Mission in late March 2018 to provide health coverage of Rs. 5 Lakh (or approximately $7,335) per year for all Indian families. This was a much needed reform measure in the Indian healthcare system, but the question remains whether the government made required infrastructural changes in order to ensure the full benefits that would allow the Indian people to access their fundamental human rights to healthcare.

The poor state of healthcare in India was illustrated last year when more than 60 children died in a government hospital because of inadequate infrastructure. This was not an isolated incident. There have been cases of fires breaking out in hospitals and of surgeries being conducted en masse under extremely poor conditions. Such incidents demonstrate that the right to health as guaranteed by the Indian constitution is being violated through lack of adequate reform. Reports suggest that the government made its March decision in haste considering that primary health centers (state-owned rural healthcare facilities) across the country, specifically in North India, are in a deplorable state, rendering the reform inadequate.   

From above, it is clear that the current state of the healthcare system will make it difficult for the people to benefit from the government’s reforms. Some activists have also suggested that this policy might be a political ruse prior to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in order to ensure the victory of the ruling BJP (Bhartiya Janta Party) government. These half-hearted measures are not acceptable; democracy should not only be about winning elections and political patronage. It should be about the welfare of the people. A popularly elected government has a duty to ensure that the constitutionally guaranteed right to healthcare is not violated.

An initiative in a rural health center in India. // Trinity Care Foundation // Flickr

Furthermore, with India a party to International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), it becomes the duty of the government to protect the right to health of its people and provide them with the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health as provided under Article 12 of the ICESCR.  Also, considering that India is a party to the World Health Organization constitution, it is important that the state follows the standards set by the international organization. When WHO states that maximum available resources must be put to use to ensure the right to health, these same standards should be upheld by the Indian government. Thus, it is important that the government focus its attention on the infrastructural and professional development of primary health care centers in India to protect the basic human rights of its people. These reforms are currently absent from the government’s plan to address the poor state of healthcare.

If proper infrastructural development is undertaken, it is possible that doctors wary of working in rural areas and in poorly equipped institutions could be attracted to work in these healthcare centers, for example. The current policy of making it mandatory for doctors to engage in rural service does not work toward any effective benefit because the deplorable state of government hospitals forces most of the people to turn toward private hospitals despite exorbitant rates at these facilities. Thus, the government continues to deny people their right to healthcare and forces them to bear an unnecessary financial burden when their financial state may already be poor. If any mandatory action has to be taken, then that action should be aimed at ensuring that no hospital, clinic or other healthcare institution overcharges it patients.

As mentioned previously, the current policy of the government is to prescribe mandatory rural service for doctors. This policy has been challenged by doctors who naturally find this to be an unnecessary restraint on their professional life. No other profession is subject to similar restraints. This policy even seems constitutionally unsound as it appears to violate Article 19(1)(g) of the Indian constitution, which states the people have the freedom to practice their profession as they wish. It is important for the government to understand that excessive regulation will lead to resentment among the people, harshly impacting the functioning of the whole democracy.

If the government truly seeks improvement in the health of its people and protection of their fundamental human rights to healthcare, then it will have to remove excessive regulations and engage in proper infrastructural development. When properly equipped healthcare institutions are built, doctors are more likely to be attracted to these institutions. To incentivize doctors, policy should consider more adequate compensation, on par with what the doctor would have potentially earned otherwise. Furthermore, if doctors have to serve in remote areas, the government should ensure that they have the necessary amenities to function at their full potential.

Under the current healthcare system in India, the pent up resentment and poor infrastructure negatively impact overall efficiency. Reform, if properly undertaken, can provide a strong base for building the Indian healthcare system and ensuring the rights of both the people and the doctors.


Ananye Krishna is a Year IV student at Nalsar University of Law, Hyderabad, India.

Death Penalty for Child Rapists in India: Populist, Hasty, Counterproductive

by Shardool Kulkarni, a law student at the University of Mumbai

This January, an eight-year-old girl hailing from a minority shepherding family in India was abducted, gang raped and brutally murdered in the Kathua region of Jammu and Kashmir. In the subsequent months, the incident generated polarized reactions in India and around the world, with public outcry juxtaposed against the response from individuals in authority and alleged politicization of rape owing to the victim’s minority status. The ensuing public discourse has placed the ruling dispensation headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi under intense scrutiny, particularly in relation to the government’s stance and policies regarding child rape.

In April 2018, the Criminal Law Amendment Ordinance, 2018 was promulgated. The said ordinance brought in several changes to the existing legal framework pertaining to child rape in India, the most significant being the imposition of the death penalty as punishment for rape of a girl below the age of twelve years. The move, while hailed by some as an example of the government’s toughened stance on child sexual abuse, was criticized by academics, judges, NGOs and legal practitioners as being likely to worsen the plight of victims of child sexual abuse.

Disincentivising Reporting

The Kathua rape case involved the victim being abducted, drugged, gang-raped and brutally murdered by eight persons, including four policemen. However, it is pertinent to note that this is not the norm when it comes to instances of child sexual abuse: according to the National Crime Records Bureau of India, 95.5 percent of rapes are committed by persons known to the victim. The perpetrator of abuse is not the figurative shadowy stranger who strikes fear into the minds of the public, but rather the more closely known devils such as parents, older siblings, teachers, neighbors, or family friends. Victims of rape aged below twelve years are also unlikely to report a crime unless an older family member does so on their behalf. The likelihood of this happening is already low and could be diminished further if the consequence of reporting is the death penalty. As such, the amendment is likely to push the already underreported crime of child sexual abuse deeper into the chasm of unspoken, unacknowledged secrets of Indian society.

A Death Sentence for Victims?

The ordinance seemingly also ignores the possibility that making the act of raping a girl below twelve years punishable by death, a punishment usually reserved for murders, could encourage perpetrators to kill their young victims. Rape is an exceedingly difficult crime to prosecute if the only witness in most cases, the victim, is dead. While it may seem counterintuitive that a rapist would murder his or her victim and increase his or her chances of being sentenced to death, the heightened risk of being caught if the victim survives and thereby receiving the death penalty anyway could, in the opinion of some, prompt more rapists to kill their victims.

Indian students protest against rape in India in 2015. Sexual assault of women has been an ongoing issue in India. // Sajjad Hussain // AFP Photo

Following the enactment of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, the term “rape” has been accorded a wider connotation, including not only the traditional notion of penetrative sex but also other forced sexual acts such as fellatio. Thus, “rape,” as defined by the Indian Penal Code, is unrelated to the risk of death and need not necessarily be an act that may result in the death of the child owing to the sheer physical violence accompanied by it. Placing the punishment for raping a child on the same pedestal as the punishment for murdering a child might simply incentivize more abusers to ensure that their victim does not live to tell the tale.

Gender Bias: An Evidence of Populism and Apathy

Most media outlets in India carried news of the government’s decision on child rape. Interestingly, the ordinance only makes the rape of girls below the age of twelve years punishable by death, casting a blind eye toward male victims who constitute 52.94 percent of the victims of child sexual abuse in India. This sidelining of male victims points to a knee-jerk response to momentary outrage, a clear manifestation of the skewed discourse surrounding sexual violence that too often turns a blind eye to male victims. 

Subsequent to the promulgation of the ordinance, the Central Government announced its intention to amend the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) in order to make the changes brought in by the ordinance apply to male victims as well. While the move is a welcome one, it further highlights the fact that the policy in question was a hasty move.

Death Penalty: An Ineffective Deterrent

In its 262nd report, the Law Commission of India concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that the deterrent effect of the death penalty was any better than that of life imprisonment. In the United States of America, for example, states that did not impose capital punishment for homicide were found to have lower homicide rates than states that did impose capital punishment. As such, the presumption that the death penalty acts as an effective deterrent is fundamentally flawed.

Moreover, presuming that death penalty does indeed deter child sexual abuse, the deterrent effect is watered down significantly in India by poor case disposal and conviction rates. In its 2016 report titled “Crime in India,” the National Crime Records Bureau revealed that the conviction rate under the POCSO Act is an abysmal 28.9 percent. To make matters worse, pendency in cases of child rape was 89.6 percent. Moreover, there are no witness protection programs in place, and no probe has been made into the functioning of Child Welfare Committees set up by the government. Imposing stringent punishments becomes meaningless if the law remains a mere dead letter.

Several persons in authority responsible for the ruling dispensation, including two ministers in the State of Jammu and Kashmir, protested against the arrest of the accused in the horrific Kathua rape case. The apathy of the police authorities, the statements made by persons in power and the communal color that the entire incident acquired created a strong public sentiment against the ruling party on the issue of child rape. In this light, the Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance, 2018 can only be regarded as a hasty and populist move to placate the outraged public without addressing, and moreover possibly aggravating, the plight of the innocent victims of these horrific human rights violations.


Shardool Kulkarni is in his penultimate year as a law student of the five-year law course at the University of Mumbai. He holds the distinction of being the youngest Indian to have deposed before a parliamentary committee in Indian legislative history. In the past, he has worked as a law trainee under Justice F. M. I. Kalifulla, Judge, Supreme Court of India, and as an Attaché to the Office of the Speaker, Lok Sabha, Parliament of India.

What does the Rohingya crisis mean for Myanmar’s Nobel Laureate?

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

On November 14, the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University hosted a lecture titledUnderstanding the Rohingya Crisis.” Panelists addressed the historical roots of ongoing violent conflict in Myanmar, including the “othering” of the minority Rohingya Muslims and escalating fear of Islam, as well as the responsibility of the international community to respond to the country’s human rights crisis. The lack of response raises questions about the international community’s commitment to protecting peace and precipitates another interesting discussion: What does an ethnic cleansing overseen by a Nobel Peace Prize winner mean for the credibility of the award itself?

Aung San Suu Kyi accepts her Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. // Flickr

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader and first state counselor, was conferred the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her admirable fight for democracy in Myanmar during 15 years under house arrest as a political prisoner. However, actions speak louder than words. Aung San Suu Kyi’s complicity to the killings and expulsions of Rohingya Muslims raises questions about her promise to ensure peace and democracy in Myanmar.

Panelists of the event provided context for the current crisis and cited startling statistics of pervasive and systematic violence against the Rohingya, violence that constitutes ethnic cleansing by U.N. standardsHuman Rights Watch reports that military repression has resulted in the deaths of thousands of Rohingya Muslims, forcing at least 600,000 people to flee their homes since 2016. The U.N. continues to deliberate on whether the killings constitute a genocide. Furthermore, panelist Mayesha Alam mentioned that no state besides Indonesia criticized the government of Myanmar for its inhumane treatment of the Rohingya during the recent ASEAN summit. The lack of international response delegitimizes international covenants such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and principles such as the Responsibility to Protect.

In an open letter to Aung San Suu Kyi, fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote, “My dear sister: if the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.” Malala Yousafzai, another Nobel Peace Laureate, also expressed her disappointment in a statement on Twitter: “Over the last several years, I have repeatedly condemned this tragic and shameful treatment. I am still waiting for my fellow Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to do the same. The world is waiting and the Rohingya Muslims are waiting.” Similarly, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch and long time supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi, has said, “Now that she’s in power, she symbolizes cowardly complicity in the deadly tyranny being visited on the Rohingya.”

Fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates like Malala Yousafzai have been critical of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s lack of response on the Rohingya crisis // Flickr

In her first public address since the violent military crackdown on the Rakhine state, Aung San Suu Kyi’s statements contradicted her actions. She displaced blame and denied culpability, claiming that the Myanmar government “condemns all human rights violations and unlawful violence.” She also made false claims, assuring the audience that Rohingya Muslims did not face discrimination and had equal access to healthcare and education— a blatant lie according to international human rights advocates. Perhaps more concerning, in the same speech, Aung San Suu Kyi announced that despite widespread condemnation, she does not fear international scrutiny.

Despite ubiquitous disappointment in Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership and calls for the revocation of her award, former Nobel Prize committee member Gunnar Stalsett defended the committee’s choice: “The principle we follow in the decision is not a declaration of a saint…when the decision has been made and the award has been given, that ends the responsibility of the committee.”

However, Stalsett’s above statement is dangerous— it insinuates that the Nobel Peace Prize committee has no interest in the actions of their awardees post-conferment. Not condemning Aung San Suu Kyi for her direct contradiction of the award’s values discredits the legitimacy of the prize. Recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize should be held to higher standards and accountable for their actions. At the least, they should face repercussions for committing injustices. While a Nobel Peace Prize has never been revoked, in this case, rescinding the award appears to be one of the more obvious and symbolic means of sending an important message to Aung San Suu Kyi: reputation and power do not acquit anyone of wrongdoing in the face of human rights violations.

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.

Lankesh and Free Speech: Gagged, Tortured and Shot

By Malcolm Katrak, a guest blogger and judicial clerk to Justice S.N. Variava

The Asian News International (ANI) tweeted on September 5th, “There has been a shootout at Gauri Lankesh’s house this evening; she is no more. Body found in the veranda.” Another tweet swiftly followed, “This is a cowardly act, she is just a writer & journalist, not a terrorist or a naxalite.”

Senior journalist Gauri Lankesh was shot dead on September 5, 2017 // Twitter

Gauri Lankesh, a senior journalist from Karnataka, had been portrayed as a critic of Hindu right-wing extremism by journalists and news outlets around the country after she was shot dead in Karnataka, India. A total of seven bullets were fired, four missing the target and three hitting Lankesh. The Chief Minister of Karnataka termed the murder as brutal and further stated that this was an “assassination on democracy.”

Freedom of press and protection of free speech has long been debated in the halls of parliament and the corridors of the judiciary in India. Be it the First Amendment in the United States, Article 19 (1) of the Constitution of India, or the International Covenants, there has always been an issue with respect to the limitations of free speech and expression. The horrendous and brutal attack on Gauri Lankesh reminded the country of the horrors of the emergency, where the press was stifled and gagged until they choked.

What is termed as the fourth pillar of democracy now again looks subservient to the other three pillars. Two weeks ago, Madhya Pradesh police arrested nineteen-year-old Abhishek Mishra for attacking the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh on social media regarding the recent failure of demonetization carried out by the Narendra Modi government. Further down the timeline, two months ago, there was a gratuitous misuse of legislative privilege in Karnataka, when two journalists were sentenced to jail terms by the Karnataka assembly for publishing defamatory materials.

Justice Louis Brandeis in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Whitney v. California rightly stated that those who won independence believed that the final end of the state was to make men free to develop their faculties, and that in its government the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary. Liberty was valued both as an end and a means; they believed liberty to be the secret of happiness and courage to be the secret of liberty. The current predicament among the public is to be silent until something happens.

A protestor holds a sign at the #NotInMyName Protest honoring journalist Gauri Lankesh // Joe Athialy // Flickr

A few months ago, the Supreme Court of India in the Subramanian Swamy case held that Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with criminal punishment for defamation, is not disproportionate and not ultra vires (beyond the powers) of the provisions of the Constitution. This may have run against the international trend of decriminalizing defamation albeit the court proceeded on the basis of reasonableness. On the other hand, in Shreya Singhal, the Apex court proceeded to strike down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 as being violative of Article 19(1) of the Constitution. Article 19(1) enshrines the fundamental right of free speech and expression.

In the past, the Supreme Court of India as a watchdog has been cognizant of such cases where press was gagged and whistleblowers blown. The Supreme Court must realize that free speech and expression is the basis of human rights, the root of human nature and the mother of truth. Protection of free speech cannot be done by imparting judgments but by imparting justice for those who stood to protect it.

#NotInMyName protest celebrating the life of journalist Gauri Lankesh // Joe Athialy // Flickr

On a sympathetic note, the death of Gauri Lankesh has received considerable angst amongst the public with candle light marches and condolence meetings throughout the country. On the other hand, there are those who have taken to social media to post pictures of Gauri Lankesh with students of Jawaharlal Nehru University, especially the ones alleged to have committed sedition, with the tagline, “what goes around comes around.” A few others have tried to connect the dots with Gauri Lankesh’s defamation case and Amit Malviya’s tweet on November 29, 2016, which reads as follows, “Prahlad Joshi, BJP MP from Dharwad, gets Gouri Lankesh convicted in a defamation case… Hope other journos take not.” Blaming any right wing Hindu group for the murder of Lankesh would be an unsubstantiated allegation. Unfortunately, the way circumstances are panning out, these unsubstantiated allegations may be the reason for  journalists’ convictions.

Men feared witches and burnt women, politicians fear free speech and shoot writers. Unfortunately, Michelle Obama’s words ring bells of fear and woes: “I have seen how leaders rule by intimidation. Leaders who demonize and dehumanize entire groups of people often do so because they have nothing else to offer and I have seen how places that stifle the voice and dismiss the potential of their citizens are diminished: how they are less vital, less hopeful, less free.”

Malcolm Katrak is a law clerk to Justice (Retd.) S.N. Variava, former judge of the Supreme Court of India. In the past, he has worked with Darius Khambata, former Vice-President of the London Court of International Arbitration and Justice S. J. Kathawalla, judge of Bombay High Court. 

The Saddest Bride I Have Ever Seen…

By Sameera Uddin, graduate student of Human Rights at Columbia University

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“In Bangladesh, 65% of girls are married before they turn 18.” (UNICEF)

“She was withdrawn, quiet, and appeared very sad throughout the entire day,” said Allison Joyce, an American photojournalist who documented the wedding of 15-year-old Nasoin Akhter to a 32-year-old man, in her blog. The international community greeted Joyce’s photos of Nasoin’s wedding with shock and disappointment.

According to UNICEF, nearly one-third of Bangladeshi girls are married by the age of 15, the highest rate for that age group in the world. South Asia is home to almost half (42 per cent) of all child brides worldwide, and India alone accounts for one-third of the global total. Currently, it is illegal for girls to get married under the age of 18 in Bangladesh, yet the statistics suggest that the reality is otherwise.

child_marriagesWhy is it that a country often highlighted as a development success story is facing these challenges? Bangladesh has reduced its poverty rate, has achieved gender parity, and is improving its record on women’s rights—but the country still faces huge challenges when it comes to stopping such practices. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced last year that she would end child marriage in the nation by 2041, but a recent Human Rights Watch report points out that the government has not taken radical measures to stop the practice. HRW reports that the Bangladeshi government has not proposed any plan as to how it will implement this countrywide.

Many local government officials also fail girls at risk. Awareness is growing that marriage of girls under age 18 is illegal under Bangladeshi law, but this awareness is undermined by the widespread complicity of local government officials in facilitating child marriages. Interviewees consistently tell stories of local government officials issuing forged birth certificates showing girls’ ages as over 18, in return for bribes of as little as US $1.30. Even when marriages are prevented by local officials—as they sometimes are—families find it easy to hold the marriages in different jurisdictions. One would assume that, in order to stop such practices, the laws should be better enforced. Contrary to this expectation, however, the Prime Minister’s cabinet has announced a plan to lower the legal marriage age from 18 to 16. The rationale for reducing the age limit is that the Bangladeshi government feels it is challenging for a country like Bangladesh to effectively reduce child marriage through stricter laws alone.

And it is true that their remain many challenges to stopping this practice. Child marriages are not a new phenomenon in Bangladesh. Oftentimes, families who cannot afford education—though it is supposed to be “free”—are forced to pull their children out of school and either put them to work or marry them off. Poor communities in Bangladesh are forced to send their sons and daughters to work because they simply do not have the luxury to feed their families while also ensuring that their children receive proper education. This is the reality of many families in Bangladesh. Elementary and secondary schools in the country are under resourced. This also has to do with cultural norms because parents think that since their daughters will not be working after they get married, then there is no point of sending them to school in the first place.

But there is more to it than that. As a native of Bangladesh, I have seen first hand why many of my neighbors would marry off their daughters at a very young age. Surprisingly, oftentimes it is the wealthy families that decide to do this, not because they cannot afford education for their girls, but rather because these girls are seen as a “burden.” In Bangladesh, the birth of a son is more favorable than that of a girl. Giving birth to a girl is still seen as a curse in many parts of the country.

As a girl passes the age of 18, her parents are faced with societal pressure, particularly from the girl’s family and relatives. It is imperative to understand the social stigma girls face in a patriarchal society like Bangladesh. In Bangladeshi families, fathers are the ultimate decision-makers when it comes to their children. Though this is becoming obsolete in the urban parts of the country, the structure is still deeply engrained in the mindset of many Bengalis. In Bangladesh, a girl is considered old when she turns 20. Families are usually stigmatized for not caring about their daughters, meaning by the time a girl turns 18, it is the job of the father to get her married off. If he does not fulfill this duty, he is usually shamed by society and relatives. Once a girl is older, boys and older men harass her on her way to school. She is not allowed to work or travel on her own. These practices stem from the deep-rooted customs and traditional practices of Bangladesh.

In addition to societal pressure, the dowry concept is a main cause behind the early marriage of girls. Even though the practice is illegal, dowries are still a norm in the rural areas of the country. Dowry payments are usually smaller when the girl is young; however, once she gets older, it becomes more difficult for families to marry off their daughters because of the increase in the amount of dowry needed. If a family is not able to pay the proper amount, the daughter may be abused by her in-laws. Therefore, in order to escape high dowry expenses, poorer families opt for getting their daughters married at an early age.

These are some of the reasons why the Government’s recent decision deserves strong scrutiny from the international community. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in “Girl’s Summit 2014” pledged to reduce, and ultimately eliminate, child marriage. However, the PM’s cabinet proposal to add a clause in the Child Marriage Restraint Act is contrary to this pledge, as it would lower the legal age of marriage for girls from 18 to 16 under special circumstances, such as if the girl is pregnant or “if it is their parents’ wish.” If this law is passed, Bangladesh will not only squander the progress it has made so far, but it will also lose another generation of promising girls.

From a human rights perspective, Bangladesh acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1984, which stipulates 18 as the minimum marriage age. Bangladesh also signed the UN Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages in 1998. This Convention requires signatory states to obtain consent from both parties entering into a marriage and to establish a legal minimum age for marriage.

However, international laws and treaties are effective only to an extent in countries like Bangladesh. The government itself has very little implementation power in a country that still operates under a traditional system. In order to eliminate child marriages, the government needs to effectively engage the parents in decision-making and alter the current mindset by educating parents on the importance of educating their children. In addition, parents need to be educated on the health risks that girls face when they are married at an early age. It will be difficult for the government to convince families to abruptly shift their mindset to support for marriages at a later age.  They will require more engagement at a macro level before they will support a policy that does very little when it comes to actual implementation and execution. In instances like this, it is imperative for policy makers in Bangladesh to approach its citizens from a cultural competency perspective and align their priorities with the community we are trying to impact.

As a Bangladeshi myself, I understand the cultural context in which the country is operating. Though I was lucky to be born in a family that did not see me as a burden and wanted the best education and lifestyle for me, there are very few families who share this outlook. Because my parents were educated and engaged in the political landscape of the country, I know one of the effective ways for this practice to stop is for the government to really understand the traditions of the country before attempting to normalize an international standard that means very little to the average family in Bangladesh.

 

Sameera Uddin is a graduate student of Human Rights at Columbia University, and an operations analyst at NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. Her research focuses on immigrant students’ access to higher education in the United States.

The Enforced Disappearance of Human Rights in the World

By Marina Kumskova, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University

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1Between March 2002 and July 2004, eight individuals of Chechen origin were “arrested by groups of armed and masked men in a manner resembling a security operation”. Pointing guns at the family members, the soldiers took men away in military carriers. Similarly, on April 28, 1991, Jeremías Osorio Rivera was officially detained by a military patrol when he went to the village of Nunumia to take part in a sports event. He was accused of making a terrorist threat for carrying an officially registered gun and explosives materials.

None of these men have been seen or heard from since, despite their families’ tireless efforts to find them. In both cases, the males were abducted and detained by armed men without arrest warrant, held in solitary confinement under mortifying circumstances for unidentified periods of time, and deprived of legal assistance or any other contact with the outside world. In both cases, after the abduction of the individuals and in the absence of any information about their whereabouts, the domestic criminal justice systems in the respective countries did not take any measures to provide remedies for determining the fate of the disappeared individuals. They also failed to safeguard the relatives’ right of access to justice and right to know the truth through effective investigation and through holding accountable those responsible for the crimes.

The aforementioned cases are typical examples of the crime that is internationally known as “enforced disappearance.” Today, this crime continues to take place in 88 states all over the world, and constitutes a continuous violation of multiple rights. Enforced disappearances emerged in international discourse after World War II, and the narrative of violations carried out by Latin American military dictatorships in the 1960s and 1970s shaped the development of this discourse. Since that time, the international community has begun to acknowledge that a wide range of human rights of both the victims and their families are denied by the act of enforced disappearance, claiming that states should be held accountable for their failure to prevent the disappearances, to investigate them, and to punish the perpetrators in light of their obligations under several international agreements.

Despite the number of treaties and agreements signed in order to establish an understanding as to the nature of enforced disappearance and determine state responsibilities, the international community has repeatedly failed to create a conceptual framework for enforced disappearances and to establish monitoring mechanisms that can proactively address the problem. This is likely due to political influence in the shaping human rights norms.

The context of the crime of forced disappearance implies that the perpetrator has an unfair advantage over the victim, because evidence is often under the exclusive control of the perpetrator, who typically has intent to hide it. As a consequence of this distinctive characteristic of disappearances, it is up to international human rights bodies, such as the Inter-American and European Courts of Human Rights, to promote and protect individuals from this violation.

2Unfortunately, the details and procedures of implementing judgment are specific to each Court. Both courts can and do force states to pay financial compensation to family members of disappeared persons. However, the whereabouts of victims have never been established, and required remedies have never been fulfilled, causing severe suffering of the victims’ loved ones. Under pressure from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission, Peru adopted legislative amendments and provided special reparation policies. Overall, the Inter-American system has managed to develop valuable jurisprudence that still requires more work in terms of influencing state compliance. On the other hand, the European Court was not able to require any action to be taken by Russia as result of the judgment in the joint case of the enforced disappearance of the eight Chechen individuals referenced above, since it issues only declaratory judgments. Russia has failed to adopt any measures to ensure that no similar violations take place in the future, that violators are adequately deterred, or that family members of the disappeared persons are provided with necessary remedies.

Overall, despite the gravity of the crime, enforced disappearance continues to be ineffectively addressed by regional and international mechanisms. Unfortunately, international human rights courts cannot do much to prevent this crime from happening, especially when the courts investigate cases in which one of the parties is a so-called “powerful” country. Even more unfortunate is the fact that the Courts fail to provide effective remedies to the family members of disappeared persons. While countless people around the world are subjected to injustices, international courts and human rights activists cannot do much about it unless states express their willingness to comply with the judgments. In this light, the most promising method would be to lodge interstate complaints against the countries that are not willing to comply with recommendations or declaratory judgments by creating political pressure. However, the questions remain: which countries will be able to proceed with this legitimate measure without creating political tensions, and how can non-governmental organizations influence this process?


Marina Kumskova is a graduate student in Human Rights Studies Program at Columbia University and a research assistant at the Center for International Human Rights at John Jay College. In her research, she focuses on religious discrimination in the context of counter-terrorism policies.

A Review of The Act of Killing (2012): Trauma, Memory, and the Power of Filmmaking

By Daniel Golebiewski, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University

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On March 8, 2014, Columbia’s School of the Arts, in collaboration with the Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR), screened Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 documentary, The Act of Killing. This film was shortlisted for a 2014 Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary. On this evening, the audience had the chance to see the Director’s Cut and ask Oppenheimer questions regarding trauma, memory, and the power of filmmaking.

In 1965, Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry—Indonesian “gangsters” deriving their label from the English “free men” meaning to live on without punishment from the criminal justice system—accepted their role as leaders of the most well known killing squad in North Sumatra. In The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer invites these two gangsters and their comrades to reenact their assassinations of Chinese communists. They seem eager to create a film that uses humor and romance, as well as inspiration from their favorite movie genres like Westerns and musicals. In fact, they decide that they want to create more sadistic scenes than those that can be found in movies about Nazis, as well as more action scenes than those typical of James Bond films. Despite these disconnected intentions, the documentary effectively puts forth three important themes: the effects of trauma, the importance of memory, and the power of filmmaking.

Movie Poster

Movie Poster

Unlike his comrades, Anwar—the main executioner—fails to hide his pain. Although he dances the cha-cha, drinks alcohol, smokes marijuana, or dresses to impress, when it comes time for him to play a victim, he breaks down. He says that he feels what his victims must have felt and describes feeling as if he “were dead for a moment.” Although Oppenheimer points out that the victims’ torture was much worse because they knew that they were going die, Anwar tearfully says that he does not want the memories of what he did to come back to him. In fact, when he revisits the rooftop where he claims many of his killings took place, Anwar gags repeatedly and then asks himself, “Why did I have to kill them? I had to kill… My conscience told me that they had to be killed.” His memories continue to haunt him during a reenactment of a burning village.  Never expecting the scene would look so awful, he believes his victims have “curse[d] [him] for the rest of [his life],” meaning karma will come back to haunt him, whether during this lifetime or in his dreams. Anwar faces nightmares. He dreams about repeating his invented, simple method of wrapping a wire around his victim’s neck and pulling the wire from one end, suffocating the victim without a “bloody mess.” By using this method to kill almost 1,000 people, Anwar repeatedly dreams that he meets the ghosts of his victims face-to-face.

Oppenheimer wished to create a film that would force the Indonesian perpetrators to acknowledge that they killed thousands of communists, crimes for which they have not been held accountable. Thus, by allowing them to reenact their crimes in the manner and style in which they remember them, unlike a historical narrative, Oppenheimer tried to make “a documentary of imagination.” In other words, the film tries to blur the usual good vs. evil narrative often seen in this genre. As a result, the audience gets the chance to understand the perpetrators; in this case, Anwar is not solely a “killing machine” but has the capacity to repent for his past atrocities. Hence, the film argues that humans are complex and difficult to understand—Anwar appears proud to have been involved in events that have defined Indonesia but, at the same time, becomes ashamed when the victims’ families confront his actions. As Oppenheimer noted during the discussion, we all have a link to the perpetrators; in this case, when we buy products made from Indonesian palm oil, part of the cost goes to the Indonesian perpetrators, many having positions within the Indonesian government.

Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing attempts to bring the Indonesian genocide to light through the reenactments of the former anti-communist perpetrators. Although Anwar shows signs of trauma, he and the gangsters continue to live as “free men,” or as one of them says, a life of “relax and Rolex.” Moreover, these gangsters believe that although they strangled their victims with a wire, they “were allowed to do it” and “the proof is [they] murdered people and were never punished.” In fact, for the people killed, they say, “there’s nothing to be done about it” and the victims “have to accept it.” As a result, many “never felt guilty, never been depressed, never had nightmares.”

One can only hope that The Act of Killing influences the Indonesian government and the international community to hold these “free men,” “gangsters,” “perpetrators,” or whatever else they call themselves, accountable for war crimes.

Daniel Golebiewski is a graduate student at Columbia University where he is pursuing a Master of Arts in Human Rights Studies. His interests are transitional justice and memory through the arts.