Archive for Human Rights at Columbia – Page 2

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?

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.”


By Genevieve Zingg 

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

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 Gaddafi’s rule in Libya, Spencer said. He gave the example of Bangladeshi men who used to travel willingly into Tripoli, but who are now being trafficked. Spencer explains that because Malta, an archipelago in the central Mediterranean, has not signed the refugee convention, Italy conducts 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 migrants embark on from Libya.

One particularly striking image in Spencer’s talk was his anecdote of people stitching their family’s phone numbers into their clothing, 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 they lack viable alternatives.

Spencer explained that Doctors Without Borders 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:” 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. It depicted disturbing details 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, leaving an unforgettable image in the memories of the attendees.

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 EU states’ moral high ground; Turkey lacks a stellar record in protecting human rights and it violates the principle of non-refoulement, which under the 1951 United Nations Convention offers refugees protection against being returned 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, which aimed at confronting the drownings crisis in the Strait of Sicily. Following this, the European Council’s Operation Sofia in the Mediterranean has focused on catching smugglers and border security, rather than search and rescue missions.

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 as though they had done something wrong and it 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 was spent on training. Despite this training, the Libyan coastguard have shot and stolen from migrants, something Spencer has witnessed himself. He explained 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 migrants across the Mediterranean again, and the number of militias in Libya increased.

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

However, Spencer 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, therefore increasing the potential risk of people turning to Boko Haram if they cannot migrate through the region, he said. Certain policies make migrants more vulnerable and increase the risks they face.

Spencer concluded his talk by emphasizing that people would rather die at sea than stay in Libya, and 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.

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

What Does a Career in Human Rights Look Like? The Experts Weigh in

By Rowena Kosher, a blog writer for RightsViews and a student in the School of General Studies at Columbia University

The Institute for the Study of Human Rights held its annual human rights career panel last month, offering students the chance to hear from individuals in a variety of human rights careers. The panel was an opportunity for future practitioners to gain insight into human rights in action outside of academic study at Columbia University.

The undergraduate and graduate students who attended the event held at Columbia’s International Affairs Building posed questions about their professional futures in human rights. The panelists, all career veterans in the field, helped answer student concerns by sharing stories about their career paths, their experiences, and other practical advice.

What are the most rewarding parts of a career in human rights, and what are the challenges?

The Institute for the Study of Human Rights held its annual human rights career panel in February. // Michelle Chouinard

The panelists agreed that the human rights field can be complicated and frustrating at times. Victories don’t always happen, but it is important to be happy with the measurable successes that do occur. Sofia Coelho Candeias, a member of the UN Team of Experts on Sexual Violence and Rule of Law, said that accumulative successes are a huge source of pride over time: the results you want may not happen immediately, she said, but in retrospect successes do occur. In the DRC, where she works currently, for example, they went from zero police units for sexual violence in 2008 to 12 today.

Whether on a policy or field level, it is very rare to have the opportunity to make a real difference in any job, said Aida Martirous-Nejad, the special assistant to the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in New York. “What job would I rather do?” she asked, speaking to the unique ability of a human rights career to impact real change through action, policy and community-building.

Rosalind McKenna, who works for the Open Society Foundation’s public health program chimed in to say how rewarding it is to support individuals so that they can may make their own voices and challenges heard. Yes, there’s a lot of bureaucracy in larger organizations, added Farnoosh Hashemian, a human rights lawyer in Iran. But you spend your time connecting with like-minded human rights defenders, all of whom are incredible people dedicated to their jobs, she said. Coelho concurred, saying that people who do public service tend to really like their job. Otherwise, they would all have to quit, she said.

What skills do I need in order to have a career in human rights? What are employers looking for?

The panelists answered student questions by sharing their experiences and advice. // Michelle Chouinard

Every human rights career is different, but there are definitely skills that come in handy, the panelists agreed. Every single person in the human rights field is there because they care deeply about human rights issues and are willing to “fight the uphill battle,” said Matthew Kennis, the program director of the Libertas Center, an organization located in New York City that provides medical, emotional and structural support to victims of torture. Kennis talked about what he would look for in a prospective applicant. He currently leads staffing for the Libertas Center. Important to him is the ability of the candidate to learn quickly. The candidate must have a genuine narrative of why they actually want to be there: how will they connect their interests to their career goals? Build yourself as a whole person, Kennis suggested. Trust the path that your career takes.

Coelho mentioned the importance of fieldwork, especially for young advocates just starting their careers. Each member of the panel spent a significant amount of time on their career journey doing fieldwork. Coelho also pinpointed kindness to others as the most important character trait needed in human rights jobs. Being open to listening to others is the only way you will survive in this field— you will get so much more done when you are kind to people, she said.

Martirious-Nejad also stressed optimism. In human rights work, you will be told “No!” nine times out of 10, she said, but you can’t be a pessimist in this work. You have to be able to adapt and move forward despite challenges.

Hashemian spoke of the fact that getting jobs in the field is highly competitive, but she encouraged students to persevere. All panelists agreed that networking is essential to success, along with development of interpersonal communication skills. Human rights is a team effort, and you’ve got to be a team player, said Hashemian. Humble, too, added Coelho. McKenna recommended taking the time to have a cohesive, polished CV and working on your ability to sell yourself as a person, not just as a list of achievements on paper. Other technical skills the panelists recommended include knowing at least two if not three or four languages. “Take immersion courses!” said Coelho.

Do I have to go to law school?

The panelists offered advice on continuing studies in law school and pursuing fieldwork around the world. // Michelle Chouinard

McKenna, Coelho, Martirous-Nejad, and Hashemian all have law degrees. Broadly speaking, they said, law school is probably a good idea, even if you do not become a practicing attorney. The critical thinking skills alone are worth learning. Martirous-Nejad mentioned that because she is a lawyer, she has had more access to jobs than her peers who are not attorneys. The decision, however, is up to the individual student. Law school is costly. Perhaps do some fieldwork first, said Coelho, before committing to that investment.

You keep talking about the field. What is it?

Fieldwork is an integral part of a lot of human rights work, the panel said. Fieldwork can take place domestically or internationally, although often international work is the most common. You can look for jobs with larger organizations such as Amnesty International or the UN, says Hashemian, but you can also contact smaller local nonprofits in the location where you want to work.

Fieldwork will teach you to be humble and follow a leader, said Kennis. // Michelle Chouinard

Regarding the question of where to go based on geography or issue area, Coelho said, “What you want to do defines the field.” Sometimes, she said, issue areas are more important than a certain location. McKenna recommended that individuals looking for fieldwork check out the database of the Open Society Foundation (OSF), which has a list of the non-profits that OSF has funded.

Fieldwork will teach you to be humble and follow a leader, said Kennis. It is your chance to interact with those you’re helping directly on the ground, added Coelho. Yes, some places can be dangerous, as Hashemian pointed out, but you will receive security training and are often well cared for, especially when you focus on building strong relationships with the locals.

At the conclusion of the career panel event, students were offered some time to network with the panelists. It was clear that the panelists are enthusiastic and passionate about the work they do in the human rights field. The panel represented an invaluable opportunity for students to get a taste for what a future in human rights might be like.

For more professional development and career advice, check out ISHR’s website.

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Career Panelist Bios:

Sofia Coelho Candeias is a member of the UN Team of Experts on Sexual Violence and Rule of Law. In this position, she focuses on sexual violence prevention and accountability in the DRC, CAR, Mali, Nigeria and Iraq. Her job frequently entails flying from the UN headquarters in New York to the various countries where she covers and surveys the status of sexual violence. She has spent significant time in the field, holding positions such as senior associate and criminal justice coordinator at the International Center for Transitional Justice, project manager of UNDP’s Women’s Access to Justice in the Eastern DRC, and coordinator of the Sexual Violence Unit of the European Union in the DRC.

Farnoosh Hashemian is a human rights lawyer who focuses on national security and human rights, constitutional reform, access to justice, and women’s rights. Also an author, she has written the book, “The Trial and Diary of Abbass Amir Entezam, the Longest-Held Prisoner of Conscience in the Middle East.” Growing up in Iran, Hashemian was an activist from a young age, always inclined toward justice and human rights. Currently, she works in Iran supporting various advocacy organizations and provides technical support to organizations in Afghanistan.

Matthew Kennis is the program director of the Libertas Center, located in New York City. He is also a graduate of the ISHR’s Master of Arts in Human Rights Studies program. The Libertas Center provides medical, emotional and structural support for victims of torture who are rehabilitating back into society. As director, Kennis hires people and supports and runs the Libertas advocacy work.

Rosalind McKenna works for the the Open Society Public Health Program within the Open Society Foundation (OSF), a philanthropic organization that supports governance for health, health rights and law. OSF funds health projects overseas. McKennna helps to find individuals, non-profits, and NGOs to whom OSF can provide funds. She has also worked as the coordinator for Amnesty International Ireland’s program on economic, social and cultural rights.

Aida Martirous-Nejad works as the special assistant to the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in New York. Much of her work takes place at the UN Headquarters where she covers Europe as a desk officer. Part of her job includes working toward integrating human rights language into codified national and international policy.

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Rowena Kosher is an undergraduate student at Columbia University School of General Studies. She plans to major in human rights with a possible focus on gender and sexuality studies. Her writing can be found on her personal blog, fromvermiliontoviolet.wordpress.com, and at elephantjournal.com, where she is an occasional contributor. Rowena is a blog writer for RightsViews.

Reflections on the UN Human Rights Committee: 40 Years of Practice

by Ido Dembin, a blog writer for RightsViews and a M.A. student in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University

On January 24, Columbia University Institute for the Study of Human Rights hosted a discussion on the role and impact of the UN Human Rights Committee with David Kretzmer, an Israeli expert in international and constitutional law. Kretzmer served as a member of the UN Human Rights Committee, including a two-year term as its vice-chairperson.

The discussion with Kretzmer focused on the evolution of the UN Human Rights Committee since its establishment 40 years ago. Having personally served on the committee, Kretzmer offered distinctive lessons on how the committee’s role and perception by other actors such as nation states, NGOs and individuals— as well as its self-perception— have changed.

He began the discussion by emphasizing the historic background of the committee: The UN Human Rights Committee is a treaty body comprised of 18 renowned experts from across the world who meet three times a year for three to four week sessions to consider reports submitted by no less than 169 states on their compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The committee also considers any individual petitions concerning 116 states parties to the Optional Protocol. It is one of ten UN Human Rights bodies responsible for overseeing implementation of particular treaties.

Kretzmer emphasized the decade-long debate at the heart of the committee’s work regarding its actual role and scope of its mandate. For many years, the committee’s role was unclear, and its mandate to investigate states’ actions and commitments to the covenant’s ideals was undetermined, even overlooked, to avoid causing unrest among member states. With the committee established at the height of the Cold War in 1977, its work was further obstructed by members from the Soviet bloc. As the discussion at Columbia noted, the underlying message in the early days was that the committee should refrain from criticism of states and serve mainly as a means of constructive dialogue between committee members and representatives of states.

David Kretzmer, an Israeli expert in international and constitutional law, speaks to students during a discussion on the role and impact of the UN Human Rights Committee. // Michelle Chouinard

This meant the committee was a place of “friendly relations among nations,” Kretzmer told RightsViews. The committee was not allowed to use any information pertaining to human rights maintenance or violation other than the information submitted in states parties’ reports. In other words, so long as a country did not voluntarily report its own wrongdoings, the committee was largely toothless in examining, reprimanding or even recommending changes to its policies.

Furthermore, all decisions within the committee had to be decided by consensus, rather than by a vote. This reality was true for most of the first 23 years of the committee’s existence. Since the end of the Cold War, the unwritten rules that once limited the committee so heavily have changed in rapid fashion.

The committee began to shift from being a mere scene of “friendly relations” to becoming more informed, less limited and thus more able to actually monitor compliance with the Covenant under which it was established. It began receiving, for example, information regarding states’ behavior, mainly from NGOs— a phenomenon that became central to human rights advocacy in the 1990s onwards. Furthermore, political differences, while surely still felt, had changed: they weren’t Cold War-inspired and centric anymore. The committee could now finally arrive at concluding observations regarding a state’s compliance with the covenant.

The discussion also emphasized the differences between the committee and the better known, perhaps even controversial, Human Rights Council (which replaced the UN Commission on Human Rights in 2006). The later, a political rather than professional body, is a charter-based mechanism where states can debate human rights concerns. Kretzmer stressed the differences between the two bodies, their work and subsequent reputation during the discussion, emphasizing the need for better balance in the way the two bodies interact. Kretzmer hinted at some criticism of the council with regard to its failure to deny membership to nation states known for serial and consistent violations of human rights.

Before concluding, Kretzmer addressed further issues raised by members of the audience, such as the role of international and national courts and other legal institutions, the global effort at criminalizing aggression, and more. He stressed the importance of the human rights treaty bodies and treaty signatories while also acknowledging the gap between a nation’s willingness to declare its loyalty to human rights ideals and actual actions to advance human rights-based morality, legislation and enforcement.

In concluding, Kretzmer discussed the paradox of human rights monitoring: the countries with better human rights records are generally more open societies. Thus, there is a great deal of information available on their human rights violations. In contrast, the countries with the worst human rights regimes (North Korea, for example) are often closed societies, meaning there is an overall lack of information on their human rights practices. Thus, from the treaty bodies’ concluding observations it may sometimes appear that the more open and democratic societies suffer from more human rights violations than closed and non-democratic states.

Ido Dembin is pursuing his master’s degree in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. He is focusing on the right to free speech in margins of society and the silencing of critical speech and conduct toward governmental policies in contemporary Israel. He is a Tel-Aviv University-educated lawyer (L.L.B.) with background in International Relations. Ido is a blog writer for RightsViews. 

Freedom of Expression Under Threat

By Graeme Reid, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender rights program at Human Rights Watch

Invisibility and stigma go hand in hand. “Coming out” became a central part of the gay liberation movement in the United States and Europe from the 1960s, a strategy adopted as a prerequisite for claiming rights. And in the late 1980s, in response to the AIDS crisis, ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) adopted the slogan “Silence=Death,” which became the rallying cry of a movement challenging silence and stigma. Globally, in the past three decades, there has been a rapid increase in queer visibility, facilitated by many factors including images and ideas circulating through the internet, interconnectedness among LGBT organizations and individuals, and the global response to HIV/AIDS. 

As of 2017, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) has 1,228 member organizations in 132 countries. Yet visibility also comes with risks. As the visibility of sexual and gender minorities has increased, so too has the prevalence of laws that seek to ban public expressions of identity. When “the love that dare not speak its name” moved into the public square, LGBT activists in many parts of the world were treated with suspicion, accused of importing foreign concepts, promoting homosexuality, and threatening “traditional values.”

In the first week of January, a Chinese court accepted a case challenging a ban on depictions of homosexuality from online video platforms. The vague and sweeping regulations, imposed in June 2017 by the media regulatory authority under the Chinese government, prohibit portrayals of “abnormal sexual lifestyles or behavior,” including homosexuality. Also among the taboo subjects are portrayals of “Chinese imperialism,” “sexual liberation,” or “excessive drinking.” The guidelines were an attempt to bring internet content in line with Chinese television regulations that have explicitly banned depictions of same-sex relationships since 2016. This despite the fact that homosexuality is not criminalized in China, and the Chinese Society of Psychiatry removed homosexuality from its official classification of mental disorders in 2001. These new restrictions are part of a pattern of ever-tightening social control in China.

Similarly, Indonesia’s parliament is considering a revised broadcasting bill that would ban “showcasing lesbian, homosexual, bisexual, and transgender behaviors.” Lawmakers say that the ban could include dramas with gay characters, broadcasts advocating for the rights of LGBT people, and traditional folk performances that often include waria (loosely translated as “transgender women”).


A victim of the purge telling his story in a safe house in central Russia in April 2017. // Nataliya Vasilyeva for Human Rights Watch

Dede Oetomo, an activist, decried this threat to make waria characters, ubiquitous in Indonesian entertainment and beauty culture, invisible on broadcast media. Bobby Rizaldi, a lawmaker, said: “LGBT is not criminal, but if it enters the public sphere, if it is broadcast to the public, then of course it must be regulated.” Another member of parliament said that if the content were aimed at “fixing the abnormality” it would be allowed. The highly polarized debate about LGBT issues in Indonesia is shorthand for competing claims between pluralism and fundamentalism.  

In 2013, Russia imposed a national ban on “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors.” Similar propaganda-style legislation has been debated in Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova and Ukraine, leading to an increased public discussion of “traditional values” and the perceived threat posed by sexual and gender minorities. In 2017, the European Court of Human Rights condemned the Russian law for reinforcing stigma, encouraging homophobia, and discriminating against a vulnerable minority. Russia is obligated to abide by the ruling, yet continues to charge people under the law – an administrative offense that, at worst, imposes a fine. But its effects are widespread and insidious, leading to self-censorship and contributing to bias-motivated violence. The government of Vladimir Putin has used this law to mobilize popular support domestically and take on the mantle of protecting “traditional values” internationally.

Nigeria’s Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act (2014) goes a lot further than banning same-sex marriages. The law punishes establishing, supporting, and participating in gay organizations and public displays of affection with 10 years in prison. The law was passed in the midst of security concerns, corruption scandals and a looming election in Nigeria, serving its purpose as a political football.  

The idea that homosexuality can be improperly “promoted” is rooted in the fear of same-sex relations as a social contagion. Just as laws prohibiting same-sex conduct seek to regulate what consenting adults may and may not do with their bodies, so too do propaganda and promotion laws that seek to regulate what is permissible in the social sphere. Sodomy and propaganda laws are based on similar ideas of contagion and social pollution.  

In this respect, Chechnya is an extreme example. In April 2017, news broke of a systematic purge against gay and bisexual men, who were rounded up and tortured before being released to their families in public rituals of humiliation that encouraged so-called “honor-killings.” Alvi Karimov, spokesperson for the Chechen strongman, Ramzan Kadirov, said at the time, denying the abuses: “If there were such people [gays] in Chechnya, law enforcement agencies wouldn’t need to have anything to do with them because their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning.” In this discourse, gay people are completely erased from Chechnya. Their existence is impossible.  

Ibu Shinta, the founder of an Islamic boarding school and mosque for transgender women in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, chose to close down the institution under threats from fundamentalist groups in February 2016. // Kyle Knight for Human Rights Watch

One of the ways governments attempt to curtail visibility is by making it difficult for LGBT groups to operate.  In the past year alone, police raids in Uganda forced the closure of the Kampala International Queer Film Festival and a week of activities linked to Uganda Pride. In Turkey, the governor of Ankara imposed an indefinite ban on all public LGBT events in the province. In Egypt, after 75 people were arrested and 40 convicted in late 2017 after a rainbow flag was displayed at a music concert, the government imposed a media blackout on all positive depictions of homosexuality. And Tanzanian authorities suspended an organization that works on LGBT health rights and arrested a prominent South African human rights lawyer together with 12 of her colleagues and activist clients for “promoting homosexuality.”   

But in legal systems under which the judiciary enjoys a degree of independence, courts are playing an important role in providing a remedy. Recent court rulings in Botswana (2016), Kenya (2014) and (2015), Tunisia (2016), South Korea (2017), and Mozambique (2017) have asserted the right of LGBT groups to register and advocate for their rights, despite laws in some of these countries that restrict same-sex practice.

Claims such as those by Ugandan leader Yoweri Museveni that homosexuality is “un-African” can hardly stand in the face of an increasingly visible, mobilized, indigenous African LGBT movement, and the same holds true for other parts of the world. Homophobia is a convenient political tool precisely because it can be portrayed as a dangerous foreign influence. Symbols of a transnational movement, such as rainbow flags, pride parades, queer cultural events, or LGBT organizations can be used by unscrupulous politicians to stir moral panics about LGBT rights to distract attention from economic woes, social tensions, and political problems.

Graeme Reid is the LGBT rights director at Human Rights Watch and teaches at Columbia and Yale. Reid is teaching Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Human Rights at Columbia University this Spring 2018.

Impossible Harms: A Conversation on Genocide Education and Prevention

by Rowena Kosher, a blog writer for RightsViews and a student in the School of General Studies at Columbia University

Genocide, or the intentional killing, in whole or in part, of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group of individuals, has occurred throughout world history and occurs even today. On November 30, students, professors and human rights scholars gathered in Pupin Hall at Columbia University for a discussion with Henry Theriault from Worcester University about the crime of genocide, the gravest of human rights violations.

Theriault, the president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, has devoted his career to genocide studies, traveling the world speaking about and researching the topic. He was joined by Eylem Delikanli, an ISHR oral historian studying traumatic memory at Columbia University, and Marc Mamigonian, the director of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research, who moderated the conversation. The event was co-hosted by the Armenian Society of Columbia University, and the discussion took place within the context of the Armenian Genocide, which occurred over 30 years in advance of the United Nations Genocide Convention.

On November 30, students and human rights scholars gathered at Columbia Unviersity for a discussion with Henry Theriault about the crime of genocide. // Rowena Kosher

The Armenian Genocide, from 1915 to 1923, remains one of the most well-known incidents of genocide in the world, when over 1.5 million Armenians were murdered by the Ottoman government. It is also one of the most controversial: Even today, the government of the Republic of Turkey, the successor to the Ottoman government, and several other countries, deny the use of the word “genocide” to describe the atrocities committed and lives taken.

Theriault began the conversation in response to a question about the relationship between education and genocide prevention. In his opinion, research and education has the immense potential to lead to prevention, but it also has many flaws. While he articulated that genocide awareness has massively increased in recent years and that “people are aware” and  “have the framework” to interpret these violations, increased awareness also paradoxically increases denial. The more people recognize the horrors and human rights violations that have or are occurring, the more they turn away from it. The Armenian Genocide, for example, has only been officially accepted as “real” by 29 countries and 48 U.S. states. “Denial is a very powerful phenomenon,” said Theriault. “It’s not just an issue of genocide… it’s an issue of all sorts of things that vested powerful interests don’t want to address.” Contrary to the belief that more knowledge means embracing the truth, when it comes to genocide, our knowledge can stimulate the opposite effect. “It’s staying with the truth that’s difficult,” he said.

The genocide conversation was co-hosted by the Armenian Society of Columbia University. // Rowena Kosher

To deal with denial, Theriault says we must think critically, especially in an “information age,” where we have immediate access to all sorts of opinions and opposition. People like to think the truth is what they want it to be: with so many opinions and resources available at the touch of a button, people can access information to support whatever belief they have, no matter how obscure. We can’t let denial set the agenda, he said. This involves talking about other important parts of human rights prevention, rather than spending half an hour debating whether or not the Armenian genocide even happened.

Returning to the question of prevention, Theriault offered a critique: advocates are approaching prevention in much too simplistic ways. We must remember that genocide is a product of both global and societal forces. To lean on techniques such as military prevention can just cause more violence and human rights violations. “Prevention is about changing deep political dynamics,” he said. “The situation we are currently in is the product of hundreds of years of genocide, colonialism, racism.”

Marc Monagonian questioned the implications of the new “America first” approach to the world under the Trump administration and its effectiveness in preventing genocide. In response, Theriault articulated that in the contemporary world, “the idea that we can disengage is impossible.” While there was hope for the progression of human rights under Presidents Bush and Obama, under the Trump administration we have returned to a pre-modern rhetoric in which the United States is claiming that it is so privileged it is no longer morally obligated to people. “We’re saying that we have no obligation to even respect their rights,” he said.

The conversation turned to the current treatment of immigrants in the United States as an example. This treatment makes it seem as if they have no rights because they have no documents. It is a scary way of thinking and even a part of the complex formula that leads to genocide, said Theriault. “Just because you do something wrong doesn’t mean you lose all of your rights… that you’re not people who have rights.”

People visit the Armenian genocide monument and lay flowers around the eternal flame. // Rita Willaert // Flickr

The panelists agreed that it becomes very easy to sit back and think that mass violence is far off, but even small things like racist comments are steps toward genocide. It is a process of normalization: once a small step is taken, it gets normalized until the next step is taken and becomes the norm, until eventually the norm becomes violence. With education, Theriault notes, things have started to change significantly in the United States, especially generationally. Education can be the most effective response to rhetoric that dehumanizes people, but it is a long-term process.
Advocates right now are facing a real threat, especially because the openness of discussion of the past decade has been replaced with retrenchment and backtracked progress. Activism nowadays will not be easy, the panelists said. The many electronic petitions that circulate around the internet are an incredibly easy and rewarding way to feel like you have made a difference, for example. Theriault admitted he even signs about ten a month. Yet, he pointed out the fallacy in push-button activism: It’s easy. “If it’s easy, then it’s probably not doing too much,” he said.

Where can we go from here? It is clear that human rights scholars face serious challenges. Scholars must tackle denial, the proliferation of information on the internet, deeply-rooted cultural opinions, and a right-wing shift to anti-human rights rhetoric. Theriault, a professor himself, believes in education to lay the groundwork for progress in the future. He feels strongly that the most important thing is to keep talking about these issues to ensure that lives taken by genocide are not ignored. Columbia University, as an educational institution itself, has an important role in human rights education. With ISHR, the resources to invite individuals like Theriault to speak, and many students eager to change the world, there is a platform and opportunity for resistance against anti-human rights rhetoric. Events like this one are just a small example of what the university can do to tackle genocide and human rights violations and prepare its students to be the next generation of advocates.

Rowena Kosher is an undergraduate student at Columbia University School of General Studies. She plans to major in human rights with a possible focus on gender and sexuality studies. Her writing can be found on her personal blog, fromvermiliontoviolet.wordpress.com, and at elephantjournal.com, where she is an occasional contributor. To contact Rowena, feel free to email her at rbk2141@columbia.edu.

Unjust Justice: A Case of American Exceptionalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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