Archive for Human Rights at Columbia

The Future of Queer and Trans Rights

Aimee Stephens worked at a funeral home in Detroit for nearly six years when she wrote a letter telling her boss that she was transgender. Two weeks after, the Christian owned and operated funeral home terminated her job: not on the basis of job performance, but explicitly because she is transgender.

Aimee took her case to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which sued the funeral home for firing Aimee on the grounds of sex discrimination. Five years later, in March 2018, the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued a resounding victory for Aimee, stating that discriminating against transgender people is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.”

The lawyers representing the funeral home from the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) accused the court of expanding the definition of “sex” and argued for the word’s strict protectionism. They petitioned that the Supreme Court take up the case to determine if transgender individuals are protected under Title VII, which could have broader implications for the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals across the country.

“They make the concept of gender identity itself seem frivolous by denoting it as immutable. The petitioners make slippery slope arguments about bathrooms to stoke fear about transgender people in public space,” explained Chinyere Ezie, staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights. “Sex is socially constructed… when you consider gender and intersex identities, you are working with terrain that makes something scientific that actually eludes scientific description.”

Last Monday, Chinyere came to Columbia Law School to discuss the future of queer and trans rights with Katherine Franke, director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law and Sulzbacher Professor of Law. Chinyere has spent years advocating for racial and gender justice and LGBTQI rights. Previously, she was a Staff Attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center, and served as Trial Attorney at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commissions.

As a trans rights practitioner, Chinyere has won several crucial cases in the fight for trans and gender rights. Yet, state and non-state actors are working hard to rescind this progress.

Current federal civil rights laws prohibit sex discrimination by employers, schools, landlords, and health care providers, through Titles VII and IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act. However, a provision in Title IX, which allows for religious-based exemption, is often deployed in the service of justifying unequal treatment of LGBTI individuals.

This is the provision that lawyers from the ADF sought to utilize to justify firing Aimee Stephens. Their demand that the Supreme Court should determine whether gender identity should be included as “sex” has led to the Trump administration taking steps to re-establish the definition of sex under Title IX.

The current administration has begun dismantling the fruits of victories in the hard-fought battle for trans rights. In 2016, the Obama administration issued federal guidelines requiring that public schools allow transgender students to have access to bathrooms, classes, and locker rooms that match their gender identity. Yet last February, the Education Department confirmed that it is no longer investigating civil rights complaints from transgender students barred from using bathrooms that match their gender identity.

In 2015, Chinyere represented Ashley Diamond, a trans woman whose offense was burglary and was sent to a series of high-security prisons for violent male prisoners. She was sexually assaulted on a regular basis and was denied her hormone medication after making pleas to access it, which she, then in her mid-thirties, had been taking since adolescence. She was regularly harassed by prison guards and, after asking for hormone therapy, was held in solitary confinement. The process of deliberate defeminisation led to humiliation, emotional and physical trauma, and suicide attempts.

Chinyere calls what Ms. Diamond was subjected to the “discrimination to incarceration pipeline,” that targets transgender individuals and people of color. Societal exclusion of trans people results in increased vulnerability on the school to prison pipeline. These risk factors push already ostracized individuals to the margins of society, which might demand involvement in clandestine channels of income as a means to survival. This, in addition to preconceived prejudices in the judicial system, results in their disproportionate incarceration.

“We wrote up a 50-page complaint that outlines all the issues that this population faces behind bars. It led to her being released from prison 8 years early, to Georgia removing what had been a long-standing policy of denying gender related healthcare to prisoners who didn’t have a prescription, basically in their pocket when they come into prison, and it made gender-related healthcare available to a whole universe of prisoners.”

The political climate around gender and sexual equality is riddled with uncertainty, with previous protections being rolled back. As Professor Franke pointed out, trans people’s interests have historically been excluded from the gay rights movement, which invested in the marriage campaign as the centerpiece of its publicity work. A struggle with the trans rights movement, she suggested, has been the lack of public education and support from civil society: “The federal government showed up too early and too aggressively when the cultural work hadn’t been done yet.”

Just a few weeks ago, the Department of Justice filed a brief in the case of Aimee Stephens arguing the Title VII does not prohibit discrimination against transgender workers. While the DOJ did not ask that the Supreme Court hear the case, it sides with the funeral home on the definition of “sex.” “The allyship of the government is going to wax and wane, and that’s happening very dramatically right now,” explained Chinyere. “Trickle-down rights are not viable.”

Justifiably, advocates and trans people are scared that the judicial progress will soon retrogress. Federal advocacy will undoubtedly become more challenging, but that does not mean that social change will be on pause. Trial courts, district courts, and individual states will increasingly be the battleground sites for fighting for human rights. What matters, Chinyere argues, is showing up for trans people where there’s need, rather than racing to expand the law. The assumption of criminality, devaluation of trans lives, and iniquitous access to public services demand the wider public to unlearn the heterosexism that is unjustly ingrained in our social fabric.


By Laura Charney

Righting Victim Participation in Transitional Justice

On Wednesday, November 14, 2018, Dr. Inga Winkler, a prominent figure in the human rights community at Columbia, began the event “Righting Victim Participation in Transitional Justice” by introducing Tine Destrooper.

Destrooper is the director of the Flemish Peace Institute and an associate professor at Ghent University. Previously, she has been the managing director of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU’s School of Law and a fellow at the Wissenschaft-Kolleg, Berlin.

The event’s focus: a new research project, focused on victim participation in transitional justice which is set to begin next year, and to be completed in five years. The project was created due to the ever-growing influence of transitional justice around the world. Effectively, this greater influence has engendered a rapid implementation of transitional justice frameworks. Such a rapid implementation can oftentimes lead to problems such as uniformity which fails to recognize country-specific conditions.

To set the stage, Destrooper made sure that everyone in the audience understood the meaning of transitional justice. “Transitional justice, in a general sense, is justice in times of transition” she explained. Transitional justice typically is understood to have four pillars. They are criminal justice, truth commissions (which establish a record), reparations (monetary or symbolic), and institutional reform. Destrooper highlighted that this structure has largely focused on “looking at the world in a forward way, which limits how much we are delving into the past.”

Yet, transitional justice makes us think profoundly on how we define punishment and its alternatives. It is a system that has been implemented, as Destrooper shared, to create the infrastructure of liberal state-building.  It aids in setting policies such as rule of law, democratization, among others. Effectively, this puts the international community in a special place as having international observers in justice processes is crucial to its enforcement.

Destrooper then began to problematize one of the pillars of transitional justice – truth commissions. While truth commissions were started largely in Central and South America, their methodology is now being applied by others, such as the Aboriginal communities in Australia. Her main criticism centered on the increased expectations that we now associate with truth commissions, and transitional justice at large, yet the little to no change that has been implemented to our methodology and resources. Regarding this, Destrooper reflected that “post-authoritarian states in Buenos Aires where the root of atrocities lies in an overbearing want of power by leaders cannot be compared to South Sudan or Yemen whose root problem is social chaos.” It has created a sense of uniformity in the face of institutionalization.

To elaborate further, Destrooper spoke about another pillar – criminal justice. This pillar usually takes the shape of legal trials which condemns the actions of individuals who enact the atrocities in question. However, Destrooper not only recognized the legal importance of these trials, but also the aspect of truth-setting. Trials host instances of public record, which can have strong rhetorical power.

One of the main problems, which Destrooper highlighted, was the way in which we understand which rights we think transitional justice can apply to. Though historically, civil and political rights have been perceived as closer to core ideals and understandings that make up the foundation of international law and thus merit prosecution, we fail to recognize that economic, social, and cultural rights have just as much validity in these processes of justice building.

One of the tensions which Destrooper noted was a prevalence of civil and political rights in the discourse of human rights amongst NGOs and other human rights bodies, yet local actors and leaders seem to advocate more strongly for economic, social, and cultural rights in their communities. If we want to ensure a more stable and just society, we need to have local actors more aware of the systems. Thus, the participation of victims in the process is important as it ensures ownership and sustainability, legitimacy and responsiveness, and empowerment within communities.

However, these victim-centered approaches can be problematic in certain regards. They are aspirational and do not always take the practical elements of what life is like for victims on the ground. This is often a criticism of prominent human rights scholars – that transitional justice has been focused too heavily on the reconciliation processes and on “moving forward” that it does not allow for victims to process their trauma.

This is where Destrooper’s project can make profound differences in the human rights world. Her project proposes three main aspects – mapping, impact, and framework. Under mapping, Destrooper proposes to recognize the scope, role, finality, and evolution of transitional justice and answering the question of what has been done? Under impact, Destrooper would focus on the effect that transitional justice has had, how it factors in context, and which causal mechanisms were utilized. These would be measured using four case studies in the following countries- Cambodia, Guatemala, Tunisia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Under the framework, Destrooper’s team would assess the different impact on different kinds of victims in different contexts.

Because rhetoric in discourses is crucial to understanding, Destrooper wants to highlight the power and effect of narratives and how people make sense of their experiences with atrocities. Narratives further shape people’s ideas of accountability.

Destrooper understood that there will be obstacles that she is going to face in her research. One of them being the language barriers, which she will try to overcome by working with local researchers and translators who have a solid understanding of the realities of the four countries of the case studies. To further access reports in different languages, Destrooper is working with coders to develop a server that can include all of the necessary reports in their native language she will need to accurately access information.

Participation of victims is something that needs to be profoundly understood, which is precisely the goal of Destrooper’s project research proposal. She states that she is not for or against victim participation in transitional justice, but wants to investigate more of the dynamics and mechanisms used and how they could be improved in the future. With the results of the research, Destrooper’s goals are to give back to the localities which are affected by the research in a way that is locally-relevant and meaningful.

This research has the capacity to be incredibly impactful and meaningful for both human rights institutions and local actors, as it would reveal where we can improve in our mechanisms to ensure that justice is truly met in periods of transition.


By Jalileh Garcia

P.C. Chang and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

On October 24, 2018, United Nations Special Rapporteur in the field of Cultural Rights, Professor Karima Bennoune joined Professor Hans Ingvar Roth to celebrate his new book P.C. Chang and The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, marking the 70th anniversary of the UDHR. Roth has dedicated over four years to create the first intellectual biography of Peng Chun Chang, a “multifaceted talent and one of the most important drafters of the UDHR.” Chang is a Columbia University alumni and Roth acknowledged that “we are at Columbia University, where Chang studied, and this year is the 70th anniversary of the UDHR, and I think never before has it been more important to celebrate this great book in history.” Event moderator Professor Andrew Nathan introduced both speakers to a full room of fifty like-minded academics.  

With only thirty minutes, Roth delivered an exceptional speech on the role of P.C. Chang in drafting the UDHR and Chang’s influence, making it a truly intercultural document. At the beginning of his speech, Roth acknowledged several threats to human rights culture but stated that “we should all remember the enormous achievement of the drafters and those that were involved with the creation of the UDHR. They had a small opportunity… but they managed to carve out a fantastic document. One of the greatest documents of history.” In a time when human rights are in danger, Roth believes that the UDHR is imperative because “all human beings are created equal and should be seen with caution and reason, and this was very important to justify in writing.”

Evidently, in order to understand the importance of the UDHR today, it is imperative to commemorate and recognize the drafters that created this critical document. Focusing on Chang, in particular, Roth argued that Chang was one of the most important drafters of the UDHR. Chang was more or less present during the whole political process, where he influenced the overall character of the UDHR, including key articles and concepts, the structure, literary style and ideas about justification and implementation of the document. Notably, Chinese-born Chang recognized the importance of culture, where he “stressed that this document was an offspring of several ethnic traditions around the world.” By going against the myth that the UDHR is a purely Western document, Roth stated that “[the UDHR] wasn’t just a Western liberal document. Chang came from China and was trying to find counterparts to human rights in Confucian philosophy, for example.”

In addition, to celebrate Roth’s new book, Professor Bennoune discussed her report “Universality, Cultural Diversity and Cultural Rights,” which outlined the mutually reinforcing principles of universality and cultural diversity as well as an important annex towards the global history of the UDHR. To begin, Bennoune stated, “[my report] intersects very nicely with Professor Roth’s important book, and I really thank him for writing this book because it helps us excavate the history of human rights and the UDHR – the history that we don’t tell often enough.” Bennoune believes that the UDHR plays a critical role in creating the legal grounding of universality: “Universality is the idea that there is no such thing as a second-class human being. There is no such thing as a relative human being.” It is, like Roth argued, that human beings have equal inherent human rights simply by virtue of being human. However, the idea of universality is being attacked by politics, non-state actors and academia by endorsing the idea of cultural relativism. As the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights,  Bennoune also was equipped to make statements regarding the difference between cultural rights and cultural relativism. “Cultural rights, which are very positive and part of human rights; cultural diversity, which is positive for human rights; and cultural relativism, which is a very different concept, which rather than amplifies rights, seeks to diminish them and take them away in the name of culture,” she said.

In order to address the overwhelming attacks to universality and cultural diversity, Bennoune believes that “we need to lay a foundational renewal of universality… going back and understanding where this concept came from and who were the people who helped codify it and why they thought it was important for us…people from various cultures and religions were involved in the writing of this text and it voiced a concern for cultural belonging and the importance of culture for the wellbeing of the individual person and was a product of intercultural strategies and dialogue.”

Throughout the event, one of Roth’s presumed goals was to make Chang and other UDHR drafters “household names.” Evidently, Roth’s in-depth intellectual biography on P.C. Chang was a positive step towards educating the public on the UDHR and making P.C. Chang an important figure in the human rights discourse.

For more information on Professor Roth’s book P.C. Chang and The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, click here. To learn more about Professor Bennoune’s report on “Universality, cultural diversity and cultural rights,” visit her on Twitter @UNSRCulture.


By Juana Lee

Human Rights Internship Panel

On October 11, graduate and undergraduate students interested in internships related to Human Rights gathered at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights to hear four students speak about their summer internship experiences. The panelists brought different advice from their internship experiences both abroad and in the United States on how to identify the right position, going about the interview process, and learning on the job. They all stressed the importance of staying flexible, and using the internship experience to explore interests cultivated in the classroom in the field.

Tanya Sattar is in her second year of her Masters of Arts in Human Rights Studies at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. She spent her summer in New York and London with Value for Women, a UK based organization that identifies and tests new solutions for women’s empowerment and gender and social inclusion with income generating activities. Tanya helped produce gender market assessments and ecosystem mapping of impact investing sectors in South & South East Asia. She spoke about the benefits of interning at a small organization of 20 people and how she got to meet and work with the founders of the organization.

Aswathi Kizhekalam Puthenveettil is in the second year of a Masters of International Affairs program at the School for International and Policy Affairs, where her concentration is Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy. Through ISHR’s Student Volunteer Program, she spent her summer in Myanmar working with the Peace and Development Initiative (Kintha) helping establish an internal monitoring and evaluation (M&E) system, training an M&E officer, writing and editing reports and grant proposals, designing new programs, and editing content for their soon-to-be-released website. Aswathi reminded the audience of the importance of self-care. Without looking after yourself, she said, you’re not going to be able to be a productive member of a team or realize your full potential.

Oscar Bennett Kohat is a pre-med student majoring in Human Rights. This summer, his second with Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center in New York City, he served as a clinical research intern working on the largest and longest clinical trial on adolescent HPV. He spoke to the audience about the importance of investing in professional relationships with people at your internship, and how those relationships can help in unexpected ways down the line.

Sebastian Torero joins the Columbia community majoring in Human Rights after two years at Sciences Po in France. He spent his summer with Brooklyn Defenders Services in New York City as an investigative assistant intern where he helped criminal defense attorney’s gather facts to build theories for their cases. He spoke about the importance of learning beyond the classroom and how dealing with the application of the law is rarely as clear and concise as it might seem on paper.

After a brief presentation the panelists took questions from the audience. When asked whether their experiences shifted their career goals, they all generally agreed that this past summer helped them solidify their interests and career goals. Towards the end of the session, one student asked about navigating the existential concerns of trying to make this world a better place, and the potential frustrations inherent in not harvesting the fruits of their labor. The panelists thoughtfully reflected that while they did not leave the places they interned having created  monumental change, they felt by helping an organization focused on making the world a better place, they had contributed to the overall goal, and in the process, learned more about how they can best serve humanity.


By James Courtright 

On International Day of Peace, A Celebration of Human Rights

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

Human rights, specifically the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), are the focus of this year’s International Day of Peace, or “Peace Day,” which takes place across the world each year on September 21.

This UN-designated day of observance advocates peace action and education in spite of ongoing human conflict through peace-building activities, a global minute of silence, intercultural and interfaith dialogues, vigils, concerts, feasts, and marches. This year’s theme is “The Right to Peace – The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70.”

The timing for the theme is apropos: it comes at a period when the human condition is increasingly vulnerable, beset by global conflict and dependent on world leaders who have turned their backs on international cooperation. During this state of prolonged human suffering, the power and failings of a single document of 30 human rights ideals comes into pronounced focus. Why should we celebrate the UDHR? Now 70 years old, has it made any real difference to peace and the protection of people?

UN Secretary-General António Guterres spoke at UN Headquarters in New York City in Peace Day, September 21, 2018. // UNAMI // Twitter

One lens through which to view these questions: the current state of international affairs, in which we grapple with intractable problems like the Syrian Civil War, ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, crisis in Congo, civil war in Yemen, war in Afghanistan, conflict in Iraq, violence in Venezuela, and a crisis of 68.5 million people forcibly displaced worldwide. Perhaps it’s time we relied less on hope and principles, and a little more on action.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres seemed to openly acknowledge doubts about the ability of international compacts to uphold human rights in the present day as he spoke today at UN Headquarters in New York City. At the same time, he also pushed back against these uncertainties with vigorous optimism.

“When we are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we know that human rights are violated in so many parts of the world, we even know that the human rights agenda is losing ground,” Guterres said. “But we don’t give up because respect for human rights and human dignity is a basic condition for peace.”

Forging ahead against challenges was the key sentiment of today’s remarks.

“We are here because we are determined and we do not give up. We see conflicts multiplying everywhere in the world. We see links between conflicts and terrorism. We see insecurity prevailing. We see people suffering. But we don’t give up,” he continued.

Children dressed in white played the violin in the Peace Garden at United Nations Headquarters. Guterres concluded the ceremony by ringing the Peace Bell to commemorate Peace Day.

A violionist during the annual Peace Bell ceremony held at UN headquarters in observance of the International Day of Peace (21 September). // Cia Pak // UN Photo

Overall, the feeling from the ceremony was uplifting. But are words and gatherings anything more than a good sound bite or a symbolic gesture? Why do we need the UDHR in 2018 when it has proven ineffective at preventing human atrocities in its 70-year history?

One good reason: it represents an important milestone in our human rights fight that sets a common standard for all peoples and all nations. Since the UDHR was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948, its words have reverberated across continents. Its 30 articles affirming individual rights have been translated into some 370 languages, making it one of the most translated documents in the world.

Furthermore, although not legally binding or a treaty itself, the UDHR is widely considered the foundational document of international human rights law that has served as inspiration for many of our world’s legally-binding international human rights treaties and resolutions. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1965) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), for example, both came into force as a direct outcome of the UDHR, enshrining in law many of its ideals. Similarly, the Convention Against Torture (1984) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) track their roots to the UDHR. Traces of its articles are also found in the language of many national constitutions.

As of 2018, all UN member States have ratified at least one of the nine international human rights instruments that make up the core body of legally-binding international human rights law, with the majority ratifying four or more of these treaties. Once a State becomes party to any one of these international treaties, it accepts certain obligations to respect and fulfill these rights.

In this regard, Guterres’ optimism has legs. His hopefulness was shared many years ago by Eleanor Roosevelt, chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights and a prominent author of the UDHR. She believed fully “in the force of documents which do express ideals.”

However, she also believed that human rights begin in small places, close to home.

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.” — Eleanor Roosevelt, United Nations, 1958

Eleanor Roosevelt holds up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. // UN Photo

A key part of upholding the UDHR, she notes, is civic action to ensure these rights; action that demands response from leaders who have either turned a blind eye or who openly defy justice.

“Without concerted citizen action to uphold [rights] close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world,” she said in a speech at the United Nations.

Join RightsViews in honoring the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Peace Day 2018! As part of the global celebration of this important document, which continues into December, you can add your voice in your own language to the Declaration as part of a UN collaborative video project. You can also read an illustrated version of the UDHR, available on the UN’s website.


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. 

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. 

Columbia’s First-Ever Indigenous Mother Tongues Book Fair

by Marial Quezada, an Indigenous ally and a 2018 graduate of the Human Rights Studies program at Columbia University

In late April, the first-ever Mother Tongues Book Fair took place at Columbia University, organized by the Runasimi Outreach Committee at New York University and the New York-based Movimientos Indigenas Asociados in collaboration with the Institute for the Study of Human Rights and the Columbia Human Rights Graduate Group. Coinciding with the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues 2018, the fair celebrated written works in Indigenous mother tongues from various communities and geographic regions. 

Movimientos Indigenas Asociados and La Zenka Sunqu representatives. // Marial Quezada

Languages represented at the fair included Amharic, Arikara, Crow, Hidatsa, Lakota, Mandan, Maya Mam, Mixteco, Nahuatl, Omaha-Ponca, Quechua, Tsou, and Zapoteca. Authors along with publishers displayed and sold a variety of mother tongue works including trilingual and bilingual children’s books, poetry anthologies, novels, zines, dictionaries, CDs, and more.

The fair’s goal was to raise awareness of Indigenous mother tongues and works as well as to connect authors and publishers with each other and the public. Some authors including Alem Eshetu Beyene from Ethiopia; Baitz Niahossa from Taiwan; Elva Ambia, Odi Gonzales, Rina Soldevilla, and Sandy Enriquez from Peru; as well as representatives from Hippocrene Books Inc., Grupo Cajola, the Endangered Language Alliance, Hawansuyo bookstore,  La Zenka Sunqu and The Language Conservancy were present in person. A U.N. reporter from the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues also covered the event, interviewing the authors and Indigenous organizations on their perspectives and contributions to the fair.

A Hippocrene Books Inc. representative selling the first-ever trilingual Quechua dictionary. // Marial Quezada

Overall, the fair was a first-time success, serving as a space to value and honor Indigenous mother tongues and works written in them, a space that is too often not present in higher education institutions. This reality itself was central to the organization of the fair.

Indigenous languages have historically been excluded from curriculum, classrooms, and public places. Even today, schooling for Indigenous students will often take a “subtractive” form, in which the teaching medium is a dominant language of the society rather than an Indigenous language, effectively leading to the “transferring [of] their children to the dominant group,” according to an paper written for the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues by Ole Henrik Magga et al. This not only may have a negative effect on academic achievement of Indigenous children but also on language maintenance for an entire Indigenous community.

The proceedings from the Expert Group Meeting of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in 2016 declared that providing education in the Indigenous mother tongues improves educational outcomes and reduces dropout rates of Indigenous students. Furthermore, it contributes to the strengthening of Indigenous languages and creation of new generations of speakers.

Author Alem Eshetu Beyene displaying his children’s books in Amharic. // Marial Quezada

To celebrate Indigenous languages and advocate for Indigenous language education alike, the U.N. General Assembly announced that 2019 will be the The Year of Indigenous Languages.” UNESCO will lead this initiative to promote Indigenous languages, highlighting the significance of Indigenous peoples and critical role that Indigenous languages play in education, science, technology, and the future of Mother Earth.

The organizers of the first-ever Mother Tongues Book Fair hope to support this work, ensuring Indigenous people are at the forefront of these efforts by celebrating and collaborating with Indigenous authors for a second Mother Tongues Book Fair in 2019. Until then, please visit this year’s website to learn more about the 2018 event, or reach out if you are interested in getting more involved.


Marial Quezada is an Indigenous ally and a language and cultural rights advocate. Last week, she received her Master’s degree in Human Rights Studies from Columbia University, where she studied in the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights program and concentrated in education rights. Supported by the FLAS fellowship, she studied Quechua through the Indigenous and Diasporic Language Consortium and participated as a member of the Runasimi Outreach Committee at NYU. She is also a member of Movimientos Indigenas Asociados and a writer for the affiliate newspaper, La Zenka Sunqu.

Taming the Bull: Can Global Finance ‘Save’ Human Rights?

by Genevieve Zingg, editor of RightsViews and a M.A. student in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University

The global financial system has long had a public image problem.

In the United States, Wall Street has become virtually synonymous with greed, power, and ruthlessness, a reputation turned into American lore by a long line of iconic films and insider tales. From the eponymous “Wall Street” starring Michael Douglas in 1987 to Leonardo DiCaprio’s 2013 role as Jordan Belfort in “The Wolf of Wall Street” and the dark story behind the 2008 financial collapse in “The Big Short,” finance has been cast as the epicenter for the self-interested and corrupt.  

David Kinley, chair in Human Rights Law at the University of Sydney, however, sees an opportunity to leverage Wall Street, and its international counterparts in London, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Geneva for the benefit of international human rights and social justice, a chance for finance to shed its bad reputation and become a positive force for socioeconomic impact.

Kinley, an expert member of high-profile London law firm Doughty Street Chambers, spoke at Columbia University in March about his new book, “Necessary Evil: How to Fix Finance by Saving Human Rights.” The book, a ten-year project aimed at bridging the gap between finance and human rights, argues that there is an unavoidable relationship between the two sectors.

David Kinley, chair in Human Rights Law at the University of Sydney, spoke at Columbia University in March. // Genevieve Zingg

Noting a lack of existing scholarship to investigate the intersectional scope between finance and human rights, Kinley says he deliberately chose a broad and accessible lens to kick off the conversation. Human rights, for instance, are defined in the book not according to technical legal instruments and international agreements but by our day-to-day understanding of the term: simply those things that give people dignity, respect, security and equality within a given community.

Citing the drop in global poverty over the last 30 years, Kinley emphasized that his critique of finance is not a rebuke of capitalism as a whole. Capitalism is to a large degree responsible for many positive economic effects, including overall increases in aggregate and global wealth.

“I’m not trying to say, let’s erase the capitalist system,” Kinley said, “but I do think its sharp edges can be dulled. It has become introspective, concerned with its own indicia of success rather than having a consciousness or awareness of its impacts outside finance itself.”

As the sole sector necessary for every other sector, human rights included, finance is in a unique position. However, it is precisely this exceptionalism that has rendered finance a dangerous purveyor of political power.

“There’s a revolving door between Wall Street and K Street,” Kinley said, referring to a corridor of top lobbying firms in Washington, D.C. “This is the same in all financial centers of power. You want the SEC and other watchdogs to know how the system works, but if they come from within, they may start to become protectors rather than scrutinizers of the system.”

He pointed to the recent appointment of Jerome Powell to head the Federal Reserve. Powell joins a growing roster of former Goldman Sachs attorneys and executives appointed to key U.S. economic policy positions. Despite campaign promises to “drain the swamp,” President Donald Trump has stacked his administration with a bevy of Goldman Sachs bankers. The list includes Steven Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs partner and current Treasury Secretary; Eric Ueland, a former Goldman Sachs lobbyist, now the Under Secretary of State; Gary Cohn, Trump’s top economic adviser; John Clayton, a lawyer who advised Goldman Sachs during the 2008 bailouts, now the chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC); and Steven Peikin, another former Goldman Sachs attorney, now one of two directors of the SEC enforcement division.

Wall Street has become virtually synonymous with greed, power, and ruthlessness, a reputation turned into American lore. // Photo by DFLORIAN1980 // Flickr

Perhaps the only thing worse than being ensnared by the unavoidable tentacles of the financial system, Kinley continued, is being excluded from it. However, he argues that the growing use of microcredit, microfinance and mobile money are slowly increasing financial inclusion among those previously left outside the system.

“I’ve just come back from Nepal, and everyone there owns a mobile phone— which allows you to have mobile money. People may be overcharged for it, but they will still go for it because they believe in themselves and their ability to break out of the cycle of poverty,” he said.

Overcharging is just one of many criticisms leveled at the microfinance industry like any practice, it is not without its risks. Predatory loan sharks reportedly thrive among microfinance initiatives in the developing world, and some studies find that overindebtedness can leave poor people more desperate than they were before. 

The talk at Columbia University focused on at bridging the gap between finance and human rights. // Genevieve Zingg

Joel Moser, founder and Chief Executive Officer of AQM Capital LLC and an adjunct professor at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, defended the essence and objective of Wall Street. “It facilitates the movement of money so that companies can get started, so that Columbia can borrow money to build a new medical center, so a government can borrow to build water treatment centers,” he said.

Moser argued that there is nothing fundamentally evil about the system itself, nor is there anything wrong with people wanting to make money— as John Locke said, a central freedom of democracy is the pursuit of money. “There are evil actors, but there are evil actors everywhere,” Moser added.

Like Kinley, he pointed to the political side of finance as the sector’s major fault, pushing against the idea that human rights issues evolve from Wall Street itself. “It’s an issue of enforcement and regulation. When you have the Street controlling the government, that’s the problem, and that’s a problem with democracy,” he said, pointing to the National Rifle Association (NRA) as a pertinent example of lobby groups leveraging their political power to manipulate the very regulations meant to control them. The NRA’s influence on Capitol Hill is undeniable: of the 535 current members of Congress in both the House and the Senate, 307 have received direct or indirect financial contributions from the NRA. Similarly, the finance lobby spent a whopping $2 billion on political activity between 2015 and 2016. 

All this money can, of course, be used to drive human rights forward. Daniel Berezowsky, a second year student in SIPA’s Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy concentration, argued that finance is beginning to look beyond philanthropy to drive social impact. He pointed to the recent precedent of LGBT rights being embedded into World Bank loans, creating a significant incentive for human rights compliance even in countries firmly opposed to recognizing its LGBT members and communities. In 2014, for example, the World Bank blocked a $90 million loan to Uganda on the basis of its draconian anti-LGBT laws, the first time a loan was explicitly tied to the rights of sexual minorities.

The event was one of the first of many collaborations between the Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy and International Finance and Economic Policy concentrations. // Genevieve Zingg

Majda Radovanovic, a first year student in SIPA’s International Finance and Economic Policy program, argued that human rights have as much practical weight as they do moral or ethical. Like Warren Buffet’s classic principle— good practices pay off in the long run— there is increasing evidence that Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) factors offer investors long-term performance advantages.

The most important issue is figuring out specific, concrete steps that can better fuse human rights and finance. “The broad, open-ended gist of human rights doesn’t help advocates be taken seriously by finance,” Kinley said. “Human rights are aspirational hopes of the most divine kind, but lack real steps describing how you achieve these goals— we need to drill it down to what it means in the specific context of finance.”

Radovanovic pointed out that unmet human rights needs may arise because the sector is simply unequipped to identify and address them. A potential partnership opportunity between government, human rights experts and the financial sector might help provide the missing education and information to fill this crucial gap, she said.

Joanne Bauer, who teaches business and human rights at SIPA and moderated the discussion, sees SIPA as an ideal place for productive collaboration between finance and human rights professionals given its expertise in both fields. She suggests that this event, a co-sponsorship between SIPA’s Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy and International Finance and Economic Policy concentrations, will be the first of many collaborations focusing on finance and human rights as tools for the promotion of corporate accountability.

“If we continue to oppose the bull, we’ll just be run over,” Berezowsky mused, in reference to the “Fearless Girl” boldly staring down the Charging Bull of Wall Street. “We need to learn to tame the bull, and use it for purposes that benefit human rights as well as finance.”

 

 

 

Genevieve Zingg is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University, focusing on human rights in the context of armed conflict, counterterrorism and national security. She is interested in refugees and migration, foreign policy and international politics, international criminal and humanitarian law, and intersectional issues of race and gender. She holds a B.A. (Hons.) from the University of Toronto and has professional experience working in Geneva, Athens, Paris, Brussels and Toronto. Connect with her on Twitter @GenZingg. She is editor of RightsViews. 

Rural Women’s Human Rights: Challenges and Opportunities

By Ashley E. Chappo, editor of RightsViews and a M.I.A. candidate at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University

The sixty-second session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW62), the largest UN gathering on gender equality, took place from 12 to 23 March at United Nations Headquarters in New York. The priority theme of this year’s session was rural women, specifically “challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls.”

The side-panel “Rural Women’s Rights: Challenges and Opportunities” was held at the UN Church Center on March 23, 2018. // IWAC

While global leaders, representatives from 170 member states, NGOs, and activists convened for two weeks of official meetings at headquarters, the conversation continued unofficially in panels and side events around the city. One of these side panels, sponsored by the International Women’s Anthropology Conference, took place at the UN Church Center as the official proceedings of the 62nd session came to a close on Friday, March 23. The panel’s focus was the importance of organizing rural grassroots women and the significance of the rural grassroots movement to achieve improvements for rural women and girls

RightsViews reported live from the panel, which featured four speakers including leaders of grassroots movements and human rights scholars. The panel was moderated by Sheila Dauer, the former director of Amnesty International USA’s Women’s Human Rights program and a faculty member of the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University.

The panelists talked on a range of issues, covering women’s social and economic rights, and acknowledging realities of discrimination and violence that challenge rural women’s empowerment on a daily basis. Two of the speakers have worked at the grassroots level organizing women farmers, one organized Dalits (members of the lowest caste in Nepal), and the final speaker worked at the UN-level on water and sanitation issues.

The first speaker was Maria Luisa Mendonca, who has done grassroots organizing in Brazil and specializes in agricultural systems, rural movements and natural resource conflicts. The founder of the World Social Forum and director of Brazil’s Network for Social Justice and Human Rights, she is currently a visiting scholar at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She emphasized the big picture, noting that the challenges of rural women are operating within much larger geopolitical conflicts including competition for mining resources, land, water, and oil. In order to empower these women, she argued, we need to connect their experiences with issues of concern to us all, including promoting formal property rights, land use access, housing, and general empowerment.

Panelist Bishnu Maya Pariyar recalls her childhood as a member of the lower Dalit caste in Nepal. // Ashley Chappo

Pointing to Brazil, she indicated that subsistence agriculture is a largely invisible segment of the economic data, with only large-scale agriculture counting in GDP. This reality limits opportunities for rural women, who would benefit from greater advocacy for subsistence agriculture in data systems, she said. In Brazil, women also face additional challenges such as displacement by private militias favoring monocrop agriculture.

The next speaker, Mary Lily, is the chair of the Women in Agriculture Platform in Ghana and vice chair of the Women Farmers Movement. Her grassroots activism has advocated for unpaid care work recognition, redistribution, and women’s representation.  She spoke about some of the diverse challenges faced by rural women in Ghana, including domestic violence, sexual harassment and high rates of teenage pregnancy. In addition, she pointed to access to land for productive use and access to water as big problems facing rural women. In a rural community of 5,000 people, for example, she said there are only two borehole wells. The solution? Collective action: regional groups need to come together to create a unified platform, engage with chiefs of communities, and get by-laws written. Furthermore, she said, poverty should be eradicated.

The third panelist, Bishnu Maya Pariyar, recalled her childhood as a member of the lower Dalit caste in Nepal and the challenges that led to her current advocacy work for domestic violence victims as the president of the Association for Dalit Women’s Advancement of Nepal (ADWAN), which she founded at the age of 20. ADWAN works to support marginalized communities in Nepal by fighting caste discrimination and building grassroots organizing, human rights training and development.

Mary Lily, chair of the Women in Agriculture Platform in Ghana and vice chair of the Women Farmers Movement, speaks during the panel. // Ashley Chappo

She told the story of her life as an activist, which began when she was just 10 years old and witnessed a local woman crying as her husband beat her because she was a Dalit woman. Pariyar saw the need to find tools to empower similar women and bring the different castes together to address common issues for women across the caste system, including problems such as domestic violence and gender discrimination. She called for greater representation of grassroots women in the UN system and at next year’s session, with more efforts made to translate discussions and get the women to the meetings despite visa challenges.

The final speaker, Inga Winkler, a lecturer in human rights at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University, turned the conversation closer to home for Americans. As the legal advisor to the first UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation, her talk focused on rural women and sanitation rights. She spoke about women in the rural United States, where poverty is an issue due to structural conditions and discrimination. She cited rural Alabama as an example, where one sparsely-populated county is 70 percent black with an average income less than $30,000. In this community, there is no municipal sewerage, so many of these women rely on septic systems or on-site sanitation systems, which they are expected to install despite little income, leading them to instead rely on piping systems that drain into cesspools on their property, creating health hazards.

Following these brief remarks by the panelists, moderator Dauer turned the discussion to a final question and answer session, which reiterated many of the main points of the conversation. The speakers agreed that the takeaway theme of the discussion was positive change comes from collective power; “when women work together, they can accomplish a lot.” Rural women should be brought to the table for important conversations so that they can be empowered and their concerns heard.


Ashley E. Chappo is a Master of International Affairs candidate at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and a recent graduate of Columbia Journalism School. She concentrates in human rights and humanitarian policy and specializes in international conflict resolution. She is editor of RightsViews. 

 

The Politics of Search and Rescue Operations

by Morgan Cronin-Webb, an M.A. student in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University

Since 2013, search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean have been a highly contentious issue in the media and European politics. In February, students, professors and human rights scholars at Columbia University were fortunate enough to hear Dr. Craig Spencer, director of Global Health in Emergency Medicine at New York-Presbyterian, speak on the politics of search and rescue operations.

Dr. Spencer works in public health both in New York, providing clinical care, and internationally, dealing with issues as wide ranging as access to legal documentation in Indonesia to the coordination of an epidemiologist response to Ebola in Guinea. His most recent posting was on a Doctors without Borders search and rescue mission in the Mediterranean. He began his discussion at Columbia University by giving background to the current refugee crisis: Dr. Spencer explained that the difference today in dealing with refugee issues is “the scale of the problem” and “how we are dealing with it.” Contrary to public opinion and media representations, he made it clear that developing countries, which are already “vulnerable and fragile,” bear the brunt of the current crisis in terms of hosting refugees.

For example, migration has happened across Africa for hundreds of years as people moved to North Africa where there were more jobs. This was especially the case during the beginning of Muammar Gadhafi’s rule in Libya, Spencer said. He gave the example of Bangladeshi men who used to travel willingly into Tripoli, but who are now more recently being trafficked. Spencer explains that because Malta, an archipelago in the central Mediterranean, has not signed the refugee convention, Italy does the search and rescue operations near Libya, which remains a currently unstable country. The passing Italian coastguard is required to help boats in distress that are outside of Libya’s sovereign land. Spencer explained that distress can include any boat that is still running but that is unlikely to last long. Further, he asserted that the Italian coastguard may destroy boats in the Mediterranean in order to prevent smugglers from reusing the sea faring boats that people take from Libya.

Dr. Craig Spencer gave a talk at Columbia University on search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean in February 2018. // Lara Nettelfield

One particularly jarring image in Spencer’s talk was his anecdote of people stitching their family phone numbers into their clothes, in case they do not survive the journey. It highlights the fact that migrants are highly aware of the risks that they are taking but often take the risk anyway, absent viable alternatives.

Spencer explained that Medecins Sans Frontieres tries to give a sense of humanity back to those that board their boats. This is especially important because migrants often endure routine rape, beatings, and torture during their journeys. Bangladeshi men, in particular, are seen to be “cash cows,” so they are more likely to be detained time and time again, until their families send money.

A picture of a boy’s drawing of his journey was projected during the talk. The disturbing details that were added to his account, including the number of days he spent in each place, along with the conditions, experiences of torture, degrading treatment, and the complexity and length of the route, left an unforgettable image for the audience.

Spencer went on to discuss why the situation in the Mediterranean remains so contentious, pointing to the EU-Turkey deal of 2016. In this controversial “one in, one out” deal, one refugee in Greece is returned to Turkey in exchange for one refugee in Turkey finding asylum in Europe. The deal, under which Turkey received €6 billion, was an effort by European states and the EU to decrease incentives for migrants to journey to Europe. As a result, Spencer purports that fewer people made the journey from Turkey to Greece and instead came up through the central Mediterranean since the deal has been in place. This erodes the EU states’ moral high ground when it comes to human rights, as Turkey lacks a stellar record in protecting human rights and has violated the principle of non-refoulement, which in the 1951 United Nations Convention offers a person protection against return to a country where he or she fears persecution.

The conversation with Dr. Spencer next turned to the role of populist governments in fueling anti-migration sentiment. For example, Italy threatened to close down its port (which would have been against maritime law) in response to a lack of responsibility-sharing from other European states, such as France and England. Further, Spencer explained that an anti-migrant party majority recently won elections in Italy.

National and international attention was further galvanized by the Lampedusa shipwreck, where nearly 1,000 migrants drowned just off the coast of Italy. This led to the Mare Nostrum humanitarian operation by the Italian military aimed at confronting the crisis of drownings in the Strait of Sicily. Following this, the European Council’s Operation Sofia in the Mediterranean has focused on catching smugglers and on border security, rather than search and rescue missions.

Since 2013, search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean have been a highly contentious issue in the media. // Lara Nettelfield

Another issue of contention was the fact that NGOs conducting search and rescue operations from privately-owned ships in the Mediterranean were asked to sign a code of conduct by the Italian government, making it harder for NGOs to carry out their search and rescue missions, Spencer said. He claims that “the only thing that happens when people are prevented from being rescued is that more people drown.” The code made NGOs feel like they had done something bad and also lowered their profile in the media. One privately funded group even raised money for a boat to take people back to Libya.

Spencer next moved the conversation to Europe’s externalization of border controls and use of development aid to stem migration flows. Instead of supporting search and rescue teams, Europe and Italy turned to supporting the Libyan coastguard, for example. Spencer noted that millions of dollars were spent on training them. Despite this training, the Libyan coastguard have shot and stolen from migrants, something Spencer says he has witnessed himself. He indicated that the EU is essentially supporting militias, supplying guns and medical supplies, which are used at detention centers. In January, Libya was not paid, so they started sending people across the Mediterranean again, and the number of militias in Libya increased.

Spencer added that the majority of people pass through Libya and Niger. Most people in Agadez, for example, have migrated through the desert, so an attempt was also made by the EU to stop people migrating there. The EU’s Sahel policy resulted in Niger making it illegal to migrate or to transport people. Spencer indicated that the EU has further invested in and supported development in West Africa, another attempt by the EU and UN to stop all migration.

However, he explained that even with these policies and more money being spent, people are still going to migrate. If you don’t have traffickers or smugglers whose livelihood is transport, security risks may actually increase as some people may resort to terrorism. For example, 80 percent of Lake Chad has dried up, so people there are more likely to turn to Boko Haram if they cannot migrate through the region, he said. Certain policies may actually make migrants more vulnerable and raise risks.

Spencer concluded his talk by emphasizing that people would rather die at sea than stay in Libya. Further, he says that sending money has not helped. This is a global issue that needs a global response. Conversations like Spencer’s raise the question of why so much time and money is spent on externalizing border controls and securitizing migrant issues rather than providing safe and legal routes to Europe.

Morgan Cronin-Webb is a Human Rights master’s student at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Columbia University.