Archive for International

A Way Forward? Climate Change, Immigration, and International Law

“Climate refugees” will be the new face of immigration. Why isn’t international law prepared? This story is Part II of a two-part series on climate change, immigration and international law.

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

A potential solution to the looming issue of climate migration has recently been put forward by a commission of academic and policy experts who spent the last two years developing the Model International Mobility Convention. The proposed framework establishes the minimum rights afforded to all people who cross state borders, with special rights afforded to forced migrants, refugees, migrant victims of trafficking and migrants stranded in crisis situations.

A Way Forward? Advancing the International Mobility Convention

The Mobility Convention broadens the scope of international protection by recognizing what it terms “forced migrants.” Climate migrants lacking legal grounds for asylum under the 1951 Convention would qualify for protection under the forced migrant definition it advances.

“We were looking for rules that will really improve protections for forced migrants and refugees,” says Michael Doyle, who helped develop the Model International Mobility Convention as the director of the Columbia Global Policy Initiative and co-director of its International Migration project. “The moral claims that they make on us— environmental reasons— are not that different from the grounds of the 1951 Convention, which are just too narrow,” he said. “We have no expectation that Trump, Viktor Orbán in Hungary or Andrzej Duda in Poland will be interested. But this is a long game, so we’re visiting universities and NGOs to explain the logic behind this highly comprehensive convention that we’ve prepared.”

Doyle rattles off an enviable list of recently visited cities— Nairobi, Mumbai, Paris, London, Ottawa, Vancouver, Barcelona, São Paulo— where he’s travelled to spread the word about the convention. “The hope is to build a valuable network of alliances, building the kind of coalition that will get the attention of friends in government, a sufficiently significant number of them that this prospect might be established,” he explained.

He cites the landmark Mine Ban Treaty, signed in Ottawa in 1997, as exemplifying the power of academic and civil society organizations mobilized in pursuit of a common goal.

The Mobility Convention proposes key changes to international migration, for instance in terms of responsibility-sharing. “The current principle is responsibility by proximity,” Doyle says, referencing the disproportionate impacts of the Syrian conflict on neighboring countries Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. “84 percent of refugees live in developing countries nearby, and that is not sustainable.”

On the outskirts of Dadaab refugee camp, a family gathers sticks and branches for firewood and shelter. The carcasses of animals which have perished in the drought are strewn across the desert. //  Andy Hall // Oxfam East Africa, 2011

According to Susan Martin, founder of the Institute for the Study of International Migration at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service and previous executive director of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, the vast majority of climate migrants will be internally displaced, or will travel cross-border to a neighboring country that isn’t much better off than they are.

“Some are able to use their social networks and social capital, their skills and financial resources to move, but the most highly vulnerable people don’t have any of that capital – and if they can move, it’s not very far from where they’re already endangered,” she said. 

“Responsibility is nominally determined by your capacity to exist, but this top-down quota system fell flat in Europe,” Doyle explained. “We’re proposing using naming and shaming against a set of standards to encourage better behavior.”

The proposed system would have UNHCR annually identify refugee costs and the number of refugees needing to be resettled worldwide. The agency would then examine country population, GDP, past refugee loads and so on in order to determine a proportionate quota system based on each country’s capacity. Countries would be expected to make voluntary pledges in terms of dollars and resettlement based on the agency’s calculation. To create a naming-and-shaming incentive, UNHCR would publish a report at the end of each year revealing whether each country lived up to its commitments and resettled its fair share of refugees according to its socioeconomic capacity.

The political tensions that come with responsibility-sharing could be dramatically lessened if we start now. According to Martin, the key is building resilience early by focusing on increasing financial resources and human capital. Australia and New Zealand, for example, have begun admitting people in small numbers who can form the backbone of a diaspora for later climate migrants. Seasonal programs providing supplementary income for farmers and fishers affected by environmental impacts can similarly help raise financial and educational resources.

“This way, they’ll be better able to meet the standards of immigration in other countries rather than being treated as an emergency,” Martin said.

“It’s much better to help people qualify for legal immigration instead of responding to it as a crisis,” Martin emphasized.
“That’s what happened with the Syrian crisis – European countries, including those in Eastern Europe, could have easily absorbed those numbers.”

Conflict, Chaos, Money: Good Preparation is Good Politics

Governments have many incentives to prepare for climate migration. Climate impacts will exacerbate conflict, and failure to prepare legal avenues for displaced persons will only further increase the risks of regional destabilization. For example, climate-related conditions, particularly droughts, have driven conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and contributed to the outbreak of the Arab Spring across several countries in the Middle East and North Africa in 2010.

Man holding a boy during a clash near the border train station of Idomeni, northern Greece, as Macedonian riot police block refugees from crossing the border, August 2015. // AP Photo // Darko Vojinovic

“If no attention is paid and no relevant action is taken to resolve conflicts, you have thousands of refugees in the region with no solution and no prospects for peace to allow voluntary return,” Bertrand warned, highlighting that refugees now make up 25 percent of Lebanon’s population. “Those very numbers can destabilize the destination country – and these situations can last 15, 20 years.”

Bertrand pointed to Afghanistan to illustrate how protracted refugee situations can be. He was sent to Kabul in 1988 to repatriate Afghans after the departure of Soviet forces, as legal arrangements were made for UNHCR to open a repatriation office and ensure that displaced Afghans could return home. “But it’s been 30 years and there are still significant numbers in Pakistan that have not yet returned,” he explained, “and the situation is still triggering new movements.”

Second, contrary to right-wing rhetoric, immigrants actually have positive economic impacts on host countries. Doyle urges the implementation of labor-based migration. “Why not identify where a country is likely to experience shortages and open up visas for this?” he asked, pointing to Canada and Australia, two countries that have already started doing this.“Legal documentation is a win-win all around: design a better system, say, matching recent graduates with openings. There will be a large demand in many areas.”

Martin similarly highlights that many immigrants have the skills needed for the labor force in highly developed countries, especially when considering the implications of aging baby boomers. The reality is that immigrants are not often competing with natives for jobs. 

What now? Making Migration a Social Norm

To convince people opposed to migration,  we need to focus on making migration in urgent circumstances a norm. Looking at the populist boom in North America and Western Europe, Martin highlighted that framing migration solely in terms of international law and international frameworks can feel elitist, as it excludes large swaths of society who have been excluded from these types of issues and discussions. Rather than appearing as hot topics during sudden times of unrest, concepts of migration and displacement should be promoted at an earlier stage so people of all strata, education levels and belief systems grow up understanding the phenomenon to be natural and normal.

A “Refugees Welcome” sign displayed on the Palacio de Cibeles in Madrid, October 2015. // Harvey Barrison //  Creative Commons.

Doyle urges students to campaign in the human rights sense of climate migration, lobbying governments, forming campaigns, and mobilizing in support of low-hanging policy fruit like family reunification. He suggests looking to cities as bases of support. 

The private sector, too, presents a key partnership opportunity. Companies like Ikea, Google, and Uniqlo all have corporate social responsibility initiatives that can be mobilized in support of more adept immigration policies.

Over the next ten years, Doyle hopes that civil society and academia will mobilize in support of the Mobility Convention, urging cities and governments to adapt immigration policies and offer stronger protections to both conflict and climate-driven migrants.

“By 2028, we hope to have formed a coalition,” Doyle says. “A coalition that will see the value of bringing international law up to date.”

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. 

When the Wave Comes: Climate Change, Immigration, and International Law

“Climate refugees” will be the new face of immigration. Why isn’t international law prepared? This story is Part I of a two-part series on climate change, immigration and international law.

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

“Climate refugees”— broadly defined as people displaced across borders because of the sudden or long-term effects of climate change—are not a future phenomenon. Climate migration is already happening in a growing number of countries around the world: the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates that the impact and threat of climate-related hazards displaced an average of 21.5 million people annually between 2008 and 2015. In 2016 alone, climate and weather-related disasters displaced some 23.5 million people.

Floods, droughts and storms are the primary causes of climate-related displacement. In the coming decades, severe droughts are expected to plague northern Mexico, with some studies predicting up to 6.7 million people migrating to the U.S. by 2080 as a result. High-intensity storms like cyclones have already displaced thousands from Tuvalu in the South Pacific and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, and rising sea levels are projected to put Kiribati, a tiny Pacific island with the smallest carbon footprint in the world, completely under water.

A woman and child walk through Chennai, India after severe floods in December 2015. // Anindito Mukherjee // Reuters

Projections of future migration patterns expect at least 200 million citizens to flee their homelands by 2050. Further, according to a recent paper investigating the correlation between migration and significant fluctuations in temperature, asylum applications will increase by almost 200 percent by the end of the century if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated. 

“Climate Refugees” Do Not Exist  Technically

The problem, however, is this: under international law, there is technically no such thing as a “climate refugee.” The 1951 Refugee Convention and the Additional Protocol adopted in 1967 define the term “refugee” as “any person outside their country of origin and unable or unwilling to return there or to avail themselves of its protection, on account of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular group, or political opinion.” In other words, under the current framework, the millions of people soon to be displaced due to climate-related impacts will have no legal grounds to seek international protection.  

 


“It’s interesting how often the impact of climate change is illustrated by talking about the problems polar bears will face, rather than the much greater number of poor people who will die unless significant investments are made to help them.” 

Bill Gates, 2009

According to Pierre Bertrand, former Director of UNHCR in New York and Lead Rapporteur to the UN Global Migration Group, the “climate refugees” phenomenon is increasingly visible in the public discourse, despite its lack of legal status. “People are on the move for many compelling reasons. But what is more compelling than people whose country disappears?” he said.

The 2016 Paris Agreement, a landmark international climate agreement signed by 195 countries, failed to address climate-related disasters as a basis for asylum despite significant lobbying by international NGOs.

Bertrand says this was due to fears surrounding amending or expanding the definition set out by the 1951 Convention. “The thinking in UNHCR is that if we put this up for revision and discussion to adapt the Convention to contemporary forms of forced movement, it will risk downgrading the standards of the Convention itself,” he said. 

UNHCR// Ibarra Sánchez

Citing the current political mood towards migration, Bertrand highlighted the risk that opening the Convention to review may carry.

“Countries in the North and in Europe want to review the Convention to bring some limits to it, rather than improvements,” he said.

In December 2015, for example, Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen suggested that the 1951 Convention might need to be renegotiated in light of the European migration crisis.

“In the discussion of migration, there is a divide between countries who export migrants, and the countries who receive them. Some are interested in how their nationals are treated in countries of transit and destination; they want the best treatment possible for their nationals,” Bertrand told RightsViews via telephone. “But then you have the elephant in the room: the countries in the north arguing that they have the competence to decide who to admit, which is a sacred principle. It remains the right of states to decide, based on the classic concept of sovereignty enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations.”

He points to the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers, developed in 1990 and entered into force in 2003, to illustrate his point. “This Convention has 51 ratifications, all from the South. No developed country has ever ratified it,” he said.

Walls Won’t Work: Adapting National Immigration Policies

Despite the predictions of climate-fueled migration on the horizon, American and European political leaders are currently building walls and slashing annual refugee quotas. Among the most visibly anti-migrant is the Trump administration, which in only one year cut its federal refugee program by more than half, cracked down on undocumented immigration, deployed the National Guard to the Mexican border while the president’s controversial wall remains stalled, and proposed slashing legal immigration numbers by half over the next ten years. Anti-migrant policies are hardly unique to Donald Trump and strongly correlated with the rise of far-right populist parties across the European Union. The number of border walls around the world has jumped from 15 in 1989 to 70 today.

Flooding in the Walia neighborhood of N’Djamena in Chad, October 2012, caused by the rise of the Chari and Logone rivers. // Pierre Peron // OCHA

Susan Martin, founder of the Institute for the Study of International Migration at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service and previous executive director of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, notes that migration is a natural and effective adaptation process for environmental changes. “There needs to be preemptive action to provide legal avenues to facilitate those movements,” she said.

Some countries have already begun to adapt their immigration policies in preparation for climate migration, particularly those who have already experienced it. After a devastating earthquake in 2010 killed 300,000 Haitians and displaced more than one million, Brazil developed a policy issuing humanitarian visas and work authorizations for those arriving from the stricken nation. Argentina and Peru have implemented similar policies accounting for people affected by environmental disasters, and New Zealand recently became the first country in the world to introduce a climate refugee scheme by creating a special “refugee visa” for Pacific Islanders forced to migrate because of rising sea levels. Humanitarian visas, work authorizations, and other legal pathways are innovative policy options that states can institute even without an overarching international legal framework.

Other states, however, have responded to high rates of current asylum applications by closing existing legal avenues for climate migrants. In response to the European “refugee crisis,” for example, both Finland and Sweden— previously hailed as the only two countries in the world recognizing environmental disaster as a basis for protection— recently removed the clause from their respective immigration and asylum legislation.

Part II of the two-part series on climate change, immigration and international law coming soon.

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. 

 

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.

#MeToo – Now What? From Outcry to Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art/Law and Human Rights: Dialogues on Being Human

Dakota Porter is a MA student in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University

On April 9, Columbia Law School hosted visiting professor Amal Clooney in conversation with the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, for a discussion on the international legal projects of the United Nations. That same day, in a small space on the 24th floor of a Chinatown office building, artist and educator Pablo Helguera gave a talk with legal scholar and human rights activist Alicia Ely Yamin at Artsy, an organization at the intersection of art and technology.

The conversation between Clooney and the High Commissioner was both realistic (read: frank) and hopeful, but coverage is also due to a topic still fairly under-documented in the field: the relationship between arts, human rights and law.

During the discussion at Artsy, Helguera, a New York-based Mexican artist and museum educator at MoMA, introduced his work, followed by an interrogation of his subject matter and processes with Yamin, a professor at Georgetown University and a UN special advisor.

Artist Pablo Helguera gave a talk with legal scholar and human rights activist Alicia Ely Yamin at Artsy, an organization at the intersection of art and technology. // Dakota Porter

For readers unfamiliar with the concept of “socially engaged art,” it is a relatively new notion: it emphasizes collective participation in an art work and/or its creation, focusing on process instead of product, while at the same time seeking to address social and political issues.

Helguera’s art, for example, is heavily process-based. His 2003 project, The School of Panamerican Unrest,” was a public art piece composed mostly of a cross-continental odyssey by car from the north of Alaska to the furthest tip of Argentina (Tierra del Fuego), mobile school house in tow. Prompted by questions of national identity and migration law, the project incorporated activities within the mobile schoolhouse, which acted as a hub for performances and debates on “Panamerican” values of the XIXth century and related sociopolitical issues.

During the project, Helguera also conducted interviews with the last living speakers of indigenous languages from Alaska and Argentina to incorporate indigenous narratives and perspectives into his work. Through “The School of Panamerican Unrest,” Helguera sought to address the romanticism of travel, national origins and futures, indigenous rights, and immigrant rights, among other concepts.

Helguera’s other projects, such as “Librería Donceles” and “La Austral, S.A. de C.V.,” which opens April 11 at Museo De Los Sures in Brooklyn, are further examples of socially engaged art that aim to raise awareness of human rights issues and promote new visualizations of human rights futures.

In the dialogue that followed Helguera’s introduction, Yamin likened this relationship to the law: In legal discourses, she said, we are asking: “What is law? Is it litigation? Is it practice? Is it institutions?” These questions open up spaces for possible futures for the law, she added. The same is true for socially engaged art; it is creating a new space for the question, what is art? It does this by engaging formerly disenfranchised political actors and interlocutors. This theory of inclusive engagement supports the idea that we all have the potential to be creative subjects. We can all contribute to shaping of the law and our human rights.

Yamin, a human rights activist herself, noted the perilous consequences of our legal processes in our efforts for progress in human rights. On the subject of inclusivity and equality, concepts promoted by socially engaged art through its collective authorship and/or participation, she explained that many of these constructions of inequality are done through the law.

Panamerican Address at the opening of the exhibition Escultura Social at the MCA Chicago, June 2007. // Courtesy of Dakota Porter

In socially engaged art works— like Helguera’s “Librería Donceles,” which created a space for Spanish-language used books and donated profits from sales to NGOs for immigrant rights, or “La Austral, S.A. de C.V.,” where participants are invited to hear the narratives of DACA recipients in a Brooklyn museum— the potential for creative subjecthood is recognized, while the institutionalized inequalities that hinder human rights work are negated.

In closing the conversation, Yamin posited that one of the objectives of lawyers and litigation is to package narratives in order to achieve certain outcomes. Art, and socially engaged art in particular, recognizes the instrumentalization of these narratives and the subjectivity signified by this instrumentalization.

Helguera’s works and the projects of other socially engaged artists demonstrate the creative potential of our narratives in cultivating new futures, specifically more equal and dignified human rights futures.

Dakota Porter is a MA student in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. Her research focuses on the intersection of socially engaged art, law, and human rights. She has researched these issues in Kentucky, New York, Morocco and Guatemala. She currently works in Public Programs at PEN America, an organization at the intersection of literature and human rights.

Israel’s Two Minutes Hate: Netanyahu Reneges on Refugee Deal

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

During the climax of 1984’s “Two Minutes Hate,” the image of the despised enemy of the state, the cowardly traitor (and probably the entirely made-up) Emmanuel Goldstein, is replaced with that of the supreme leader— the beloved, worshipped, unparalleled Big Brother.

This infamous scene from George Orwell’s dystopian society is grotesque, violent and extremely emotionally charged. Yet it is this same scene currently flashing across the Israeli social network in reality. The role of Goldstein is being played by an NGO called the “New Israel Fund” (NIF), and the part of Big Brother is, appropriately, occupied by another “BB”— Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister.

The book 1984 has experienced quite a rejuvenation of late. Perhaps it is in preparation for the 70th anniversary of its publication, or maybe it is the never-ending war, the terribly partisan political sphere or just a few certain “alternative facts”— but regardless, it is once again relevant for Israeli, as well as American, British and French, politics.

Last week, Israelis awoke to news of the country signing an agreement with the European Union that pertains to illegal immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. The main decisions reached included Israeli recognition of some 16,000 immigrants as either refugees or legal residents, the deportation of roughly the same amount to Western countries through the UNHCR, and new investments in infrastructure in south Tel Aviv, which has become home to some 35,000 immigrants since 2010.

A good overall agreement for all sides, the deal was perceived as a political victory for the Israeli left (which objects, mostly, to deportations of illegal immigrants, especially from Eritrea and South Sudan) and a loss to Netanyahu’s base– the right, which objects to accommodating any immigrants or refugees. Almost immediately, the left began celebrating the new agreement– and the right, which has stood by Netanyahu even when potential corruption charges surfaced against him, turned on him. He was bashed by pundits, politicians and commenters for giving in to the left and reneging on his promises. Even his most devoted allies left him hanging alone. And surely enough, this worked: less than 24 hours later, Netanyahu retracted the agreement, stating that he had “heard the people’s cry.”

Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister. // REUTERS

Soon thereafter, faced with having to explain this astonishingly acrobatic flip from yes to no, Netanyahu resorted to what he does best: divide and conquer.

He uploaded to Facebook a short statement suggesting the reason for the agreement’s falling apart was in fact an NGO called the New Israel Fund. He alleged that the NGO had caused foreign states to retract their decision to accept deportees from Israel, and called it unpatriotic and anti-Israeli, specifically for its being largely foreign-funded. An NGO worth 300 million, NIS was to blame, he said, for his government’s diplomatic conundrums.

The internet roared. The left mourned. The right, which had attacked Netanyahu, immediately quieted down and began cheering him on again– and then, began aiming its arrows at left-wing activists, calling them traitors, backsliders and foreign agents. The far-right NGO “Im Tirtzu” uploaded– in remarkable proximity to Netanyahu’s statement, by the way– a propaganda video depicting the NIF and its president, Talia Sasson, as foreign agents who operate as a fifth column in Israeli society. Death threats soon ensued.

Netanyahu had done it again: with just two minutes (or so) of pure hate, the tides changed. He was soon adored again as the one and only Big Brother, the “protector of Israel” (as he once professed he wished to be remembered). The masses rallied behind his leadership once more, turning their attention to the made-up demon that is the NIF and the Israeli left in general.

The furious public found in the telescreen an image of Talia Sasson and a logo of the NIF on which to spill its rage, which had climaxed mere seconds before Israel’s own BB reappeared in the form of Netanyahu’s calm and reassuring image.

War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength, and only Bibi can lead us.

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. 

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. 

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.  

 

Does the Israeli High Court Uphold Palestinian Rights?

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

Michael Sfard, an Israeli lawyer representing Palestinian victims of civil rights violations, has encountered numerous ethical dilemmas in his work. In his newly published book, “The Wall and the Gate: Israel Palestine and the Legal Battle for Human Rights,” Sfard offers “a radically new perspective on a much-covered conflict and a subtle, painful reckoning with the moral ambiguities inherent in the pursuit of justice.” Speaking at Columbia Law School in February, Sfard opened his lecture by posing to the audience the ethical dilemma that was the impetus for his book: “By working in the Israeli courts, am I a naïve and involuntary collaborator to the scam that Palestinians have recourse to justice?”

In Israel, Palestinians seeking redress for abuse are often reliant on the Israeli High Court of Justice— which, according to Sfard, is adjudicated by judges often unsympathetic toward the plight of Palestinians. Despite these sentiments about the legal system, he fights tooth and nail to provide fair and equal representation to Palestinians.

But, the divide between Israel and Palestine is not only as explicit as physical walls and fences, it is also evident in the rights each population is granted, Sfard says: Israelis are granted civil and political rights, while Palestinians are frequently denied these and more.

Denial of equality and fair hearings, for example, is in direct violation with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 10 states, “Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.” Reports from the region indicate that the basic human rights of Palestinian prisoners— many of whom are youths— are routinely denied, with prisoners being illegally detained and subjected to abusive treatment. One youth, Fawzi al-Junaidi, a 16-year-old Palestinian, reports he was beaten and denied care after being charged with throwing stones at a group of armed Israeli soldiers. Another, Ahed Tamimi, turned 17 in an Israel detention facility after being detained from her home in the middle of the night.

The wall built by Israel in Abu Dis, an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem. // Flickr

Equating the Israeli treatment of Palestinians to the South African apartheid, Sfard is passionate about his work but can’t help but feel discouraged by the results of it.

“Where there is a hegemony and an elite, a community of those who have next to a community of those who have not— it’s only natural that an apartheid community will be created,” Sfard said.

Ido Dembin, an attorney from Israel and a blog writer for RightsViews, noted that it is important to understand that the Israeli courts are stuck between a rock and a hard place: “On one hand, it’s an institution of the State of Israel that was never meant to be the flag-bearer of justice in the occupied territories but only areas where Israeli law applies (it does not apply in the West Bank or Gaza). On the other hand, it is perceived as a last-ditch option for those, like Sfard, who have given up on winning elections and changing the government in favor of minor, step-by-step court-sanctioned progress,” he said. “In this sense, the court is expected to balance Israeli national narratives as well as fears and security concerns, with the rights of three million Palestinians in the West Bank who, in turn, have no other system to go to and rely on it for solutions. The court needs not only balance justice and law, but also individual rights with group rights.”

Sfard lamented the contradictory foundations on which Israel was founded: Israel was “built on a premise of raging nationalism, militarism, the Zionist idea that a Jew would never again be a victim even at the expense of victimizing others,” he said. “The thought was, if we have to choose between being victims or victimizing others, we will choose the latter. A disregard for those who are paying the price of national revival and independence makes racism a part of this issue.”

Dembin added that “paradoxically, the more the government shifts to the right, the more the courts are forced to counteract— thus pushing it slowly out of mainstream Israeli consensus and risking its position as an authority and important part of the checks and balances system.”

“The Wall and the Gate: Israel Palestine and the Legal Battle for Human Rights,” written by Michael Sfard, was published in 2018. // Amazon

The Israeli court system as the predominant means through which Palestinians can seek justice begs the questions: what justice, whose justice, and is justice delayed really justice at all?

In response to these unanswerable and multifaceted queries, Sfard emphasized the importance of choosing one’s battles and avoiding defeatist mentalities.

“The Israeli High Court is an occupier’s court and it does not provide justice, but from time to time it does provide remedy. We have a role from within even though there is a fight being waged from outside,” he said. For Sfard, facilitating remedies for the Palestinian people, even if only incrementally, is progress in the right direction.

His review of over four decades of human rights litigation in Israel pertaining to the occupation, which serves as the primary content of his 500-page book, has led him to a few conclusions. The first is that while law cannot be the primary vehicle to ending the occupation, it does have a role in advancing political movement for change. Secondly, it is important to refrain from dichotomizing the legal system: not every court victory leads to success and not every court defeat leads to failure. If court decisions are measured by bringing an end to a civil regime, then one risks overlooking the importance of remedies facilitated through the court. Finally, and certainly not last, while lawyers must master language, human rights lawyers must also invoke values through identifying rights violations and means of remediation.

It is for this reason that Sfard believes human rights activists are at the epicenter of the movement to end the occupation.

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. She is originally from Washington, D.C., but she has spent multiple years living abroad. Olivia is a blog writer for RightsViews.

 

Criminalizing Abortion: A Threat to Women’s Rights and Lives

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

In November, the United States Congress heard a bill proposal that would amend the federal criminal code and ban abortions after 20 weeks of gestation. The “Heartbeat Protection Act of 2017,” introduced by Steve King (R-Iowa), renewed conversations among human rights advocates about abortion and its criminalization that have been ongoing for decades both in the United States and around the world.

There is no shortage of opinions when it comes to legislation involving a woman’s choice about her body in the face of an unwanted pregnancy. Globally, countries have enacted laws suppressing women’s voices, health, and dignity, stripping away their human right to control a pregnancy. Today, for example, the Brazilian Congress is in the middle of considerations to ban all forms of abortion. Nicaragua’s 2006 abortion ban has already put women in jail for terminating unwanted pregnancies. Countries from Europe to Africa to Latin America continue to police the female body.

The human right to control a pregnancy was confirmed at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, where its declaration states: “The human rights of women include their right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. Equal relationships between women and men in matters of sexual relations and reproduction, including full respect for the integrity of the person, require mutual respect, consent and shared responsibility for sexual behavior and its consequences.”

The Center for Reproductive Rights categorizes national policies on abortion into four categories ranging from least to most severe: where abortions are permitted “without restriction as to reason,” “only on socioeconomic grounds,” “only to preserve health,” or “only to save the woman’s life or not permitted all together” (see interactive map). In the most severe cases, as in some Central American countries like Nicaragua and El Salvador, abortion has not only banned but fully criminalized: women and doctors face murder charges if abortions are attempted, even when the woman faces imminent death because of her pregnancy.

A map that shows abortion laws around the world. Countries in red are those which only permit abortion to save the woman’s life, or don’t permit it at all. // Center for Reproductive Rights

In those countries where abortion is entirely banned or severely restricted, women find themselves oppressed and hurt, both mentally and physically. As female bodies are controlled by government policy, women’s freedom of choice and agency in their reproductive decisions is diminished, violating their rights to dignity. Additionally, abortion bans create a dangerous situation for women’s health, as women turn to self-abortions or unsafe illegal procedures, which puts their lives at risk. This is not to mention the mental and physical health tolls of abortion restriction, especially in the cases where a female becomes pregnant by means of incest, abuse or rape. If abortion is illegal after rape, the woman is forced to carry her child to term and through labor, potentially re-traumatizing a pregnant-by-rape survivor. A widely-cited 1996 paper by Holmes et al. determined in a three-year longitudinal study that among victims of reproductive age (12-45), there is a 5 percent per pregnancy rape, or about 32,101 rape-related pregnancies in the United States each year.

Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights enshrines the right of all to “the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.” This and other human rights covenants create the standard of international human rights law, yet continued restrictions on abortions mean these rights are not being fully realized for some women. In a world where the UN has made their Fifth Sustainable Development Goal to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls,” legalized abortion must become a prioritized topic of conversation with real reform if we are to move in the direction toward greater gender equality.

Arguments in favor of legalizing abortion tend to have one of two characteristics: those that argue reproductive rights are women’s rights and those concerned with the health effects of criminalized abortion on unsafe abortion rates and complications, maternal mortality, and female well-being. Central to the argument that every human has a right to physical and mental health is the idea that every human, male and female alike, has autonomy over their own body. Yet, historically, the capacity to carry a child has not remained an issue of female choice; rather, it has become a systematic means of reducing women to no more than their bodies and sexuality, enforced by policies and regulations that make decisions of the womb decisions of the state.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) released a statement on October 23 calling all states in the United States to immediately adopt measures that allow women all sexual and reproductive rights including “rights related to non-discrimination, to life, to personal integrity, to health, to dignity, and to access to information.” These are rights with strong legal bases, explicitly stated in multiple international documents such as the UN Declaration on Human Rights, which has influenced many state and national constitutions. A 2009 Amnesty International report on the total abortion ban in Nicaragua indicates that when women lack access to safe and legal abortion, their fundamental human rights are at “grave risk.” The United Nations Committee Against Torture has likewise expressed concern over the idea of a total abortion ban as exposing women and girls to a continuous threat of violations to their rights, lives, and mental health, especially when these women and girls are victims of rape. Countries such as Ireland and Brazil have also been questioned on the international stage in response to their restrictive abortion bans. With the attention and clear concern for women’s rights to sexuality and reproduction by established human rights organizations and international committees, it is clear abortion reform is not to be taken lightly.

The second argument advanced in favor of legalizing abortion relates to the severe health risks posed by criminalization. There is a proven direct correlation between restrictions on abortion and high rates of unsafe abortion. The World Health Organization has determined that abortion is one of the safest medical procedures when performed under proper and safe conditions to guidelines. However, unsafe abortion, which is defined as “a procedure for terminating an unintended pregnancy either by individuals without the necessary skills or in an environment that does not conform to medical standard,” is immensely dangerous to women’s health. Approximately 20 million unsafe abortions occur worldwide every year, and about one in six women die due to complications of the unsafe procedure. These rates are much higher in countries that have very restrictive abortion regulation: there are 23 unsafe abortions per 1,000 women among the 82 countries with the most restrictions and only two unsafe abortions per 1,000 women in the 52 countries where abortion is allowed upon request, according to the World Health Organization.

Yet, despite the data and backing of numerous international health organizations, UN committees, and human rights groups, abortion remains a hotly debated topic. Arguments framed in religious and cultural terms take precedence over women’s health and well-being. The female is reduced to her womb, used as a pawn for governments to manipulate, and restricted from autonomy of body, mind, and identity. A woman’s reproductive capacity, in the terms of restrictive abortion law, is greater than her reproductive rights. Perhaps the data ought to speak for itself: legalizing abortion needs to take precedence in the current moment when criminalization remains a threat to women’s rights and lives.

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.