Archive for Region – Page 2

Hong Kong, The Women’s March, and #enough: Is Civil Resistance No Longer Effective?

By: Kyoko Thompson, Staff Writer at RightsViews

Anti-extradition bill protests in Hong Kong, 2019

Odds are that, if you follow the news, you’re aware of what’s happening in Hong Kong. The protests—which began in June as the result of a proposed extradition bill—have taken over the media of late, with citizens taking to the streets in unprecedented numbers. During one such a protest on June 17th, for example, an estimated 1.7 million people marched from Victoria Park to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council complex to demonstrate their desire to keep Hong Kong free and independent. With crowds like those, the Chinese government has certainly been paying attention,  yet after over a hundred days of protests, participants have yet to see definitive results in regards to their demands. Even worse, the sustained protests have led to deaths, injuries, and thousands of arrests, as well as incidents of police brutality

Civil resistance, as defined by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, is a powerful tool for people to fight for their rights without using violence. The Center writes,  “When people wage civil resistance, they use tactics such as strikes, boycotts, mass protests, and many other nonviolent actions to withdraw their cooperation from an oppressive system.” At the moment, levels of civil resistance have been climbing, signifying a global strategic trend. According to Dr. Erica Chenoweth of Harvard University, episodes of violent insurrections have been declining around the world since the 1960s, while unarmed demonstrations have risen almost exponentially. In fact, from 2010 to 2018, there were nearly double the number of nonviolent campaigns than there were from 1990 to 1999. 

At first glance, these statistics appear positive. After all, if more people are speaking up and opposing policies and regimes that they deem to be unjust or ruthless, but they aren’t doing it violently, wouldn’t that mean the world is becoming a better place? Not according to Dr. Chenoweth’s data. In fact, civil resistance is much less effective today than it was in the 20th century—and that, she explains, is its paradox.

On October 9th, Dr. Chenoweth visited Columbia’s School of International Affairs to talk about what she calls “The Paradox of Civil Resistance in the 21st Century” at The Eleventh Annual Kenneth N. Waltz Lecture in International Relations. Award-winning researcher, published author, and one of Foreign Policy magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2013, Dr. Chenoweth is a proven expert in the field of international relations and peace research. Using data collected from global incidents of resistance—237 violent and 270 nonviolent—from 1945 to 2006, she was able to distinguish the characteristics of successful and unsuccessful campaigns and draw conclusions as to why so many of them fail to achieve change; conclusions that, while fascinating, stand to discourage even the most civically minded individual. 

Why Nonviolent Resistance Has Succeeded in the Past

The United States we know today is what it is largely because of the civil resistance movements of the 1900s. The women’s suffrage movement, for example, gave women the right to vote nearly one hundred years ago. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s led to the desegregation of public facilities and schools across the country, the repeal of racially prejudicial laws, and the establishment of new ones to protect the civil liberties of all Americans. The Anti-War Movement, as well, pressured federal representatives to pull U.S. military forces out of Vietnam and abolish the draft in 1973. Indeed, civil resistance in the 20th century was a highly effective method to influence political reform in the United States. To better understand why civil resistance is no longer effectual in the 21st century, despite being more popular than ever, it is helpful to consider what made those earlier movements so successful in their time. 

In her lecture, Dr. Chenoweth explained that first of all, the probability of a campaign succeeding increases in proportion with its number of participants per capita. And, because people are less willing to risk harm via violence, nonviolent campaigns tend to be much larger than the average armed campaign—about eleven times larger, in fact. Large numbers mean a larger disruption, and the main function of civil resistance is to use so many people that an opponent—a corporation, organization, or government—can no longer rely on their support to function. This creates what Dr. Chenoweth calls a “crisis moment,” where people who are not directly involved in resistance are forced to rethink their interests (for instance, if a small business owner suddenly finds himself boycotted for refusing to employ people of color, he may feel obligated to change his policy not because he was emotionally swayed by the cause, but to avoid further financial loss). 

Given their size, it makes sense that so many of the political movements of the 20th century were successful at affecting behavior change. Consider the Iranian Revolution, which took place from 1978 to 1979. According to Charles Kurzman’s 2004 publication The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran, more than 10% of Iran’s total population participated in the December 1978 demonstrations that immediately precipitated the fall of the Iranian monarchy. The French Revolution, in contrast—a staple among historical revolutions and a symbol for the pursuit of freedom throughout the Western world—is estimated to have included only 1-2%. 

It isn’t just how many people are represented in a movement that makes it effective, however; it’s also who is represented. Movements in which women are equally represented, for example, are much more successful. “When there is gender parity…there is a much higher rate, or predictive probability, of success for that campaign,” explained Dr. Chenoweth. Unarmed participants are beneficial to a movement, as well; as when participants are unarmed, it is politically risky for a state to engage in acts of suppression. Recall the massacre at Kent State University, arguably the most pivotal moment of the entire anti-war movement of the 60s and 70s, where four unarmed college students were shot and killed by the Ohio National Guard. Acts like these—including police aggression—are seen as inhumane and unnecessary against unarmed civilians, and only serve to legitimize a movement, not quell one (conversely, they may be seen as justified against armed insurgents). This is part of the reason why nonviolent campaigns are particularly successful against repressive regimes; 26% more effective than their violent counterparts, according to Dr. Chenoweth’s data. 

What has changed in the past decade?

Although a select few mass protests, like the Women’s March, have occurred (pictured- a poster from the march), as a whole civil resistance is now characterized by multiple smaller movements, which decreases effectiveness

One aspect of the decreased effectiveness of civil resistance today compared to the 20th century is size. While the number of movements have certainly increased, the movements themselves are much smaller today than they used to be. There are some exceptions to this rule, such as the 2017 Women’s March—the largest demonstration in U.S. history—and the #enough school walkouts for better gun control in 2018. In general, however, demonstrations have shrunk in size. 

This may be counterintuitive, considering the perfusion of digitally driven activism encountered in social media and online. However, while a social media campaign may facilitate rapid mobilization, it does not sustain it. A video of police officers beating up a protester on Twitter may trigger throngs of people to take to the streets, but it lacks the daily church basement meetings and rigorous community preparation common to the movements of the 20th century. It also does not remove any pillars of support from the opponent, said Dr. Chenoweth, which would lend political influence to the movement. 

Dr. Chenoweth further argued that civil resistance is less resilient to repression than it once was because regimes have simply gotten better at repressing. Consider all the technological advancements of the last twenty years—the same innovations that brought us the iPhone 11 and Beats by Dre have also yielded tools that governments can use to surveil and promote their own agendas. Even more ominous is that tech companies and government agencies might actually be sharing best practices for suppressing nonviolent demonstrations with each other. In many ways, technological gains to states’ suppression tactics far outweigh any leverage movements may have garnered from the existence of social media platforms and police tracking apps. After all, what good is a hashtag when you’re fighting facial recognition software?

Resolving the paradox: does nonviolent resistance have a future?

The picture Dr. Chenoweth’s research paints may look a little bleak. It may even have you reconsidering attending the next political demonstration in your city. Given all of the above, it’s natural to question if and how civil resistance will ever regain its standing in the fight for rights, freedoms, and justice around the world. Is there any hope? Dr. Chenoweth thinks so; but only if you buy into the argument that there are things movements are doing differently today, or that something has fundamentally changed within our system. If you do, then you should take that into consideration when launching a campaign. 

Know that just because a movement is nonviolent does not mean it will be successful, but on the flip side, violent ones are even less so. Size may not guarantee success, either—the Women’s March didn’t significantly alter U.S. policy, and student walkouts didn’t tighten the government’s reins on gun control—but many votes are still better than one. Utilize social media, but don’t let it take the place of a good old-fashioned strategy—a hashtag may not disable facial recognition software, but a mask will certainly render it useless. And just as opponents share information on their methodology, so too must campaigns diffuse their knowledge; because building on the experience of others is a surefire way to improve your chances of success. 

When all else fails, though, don’t be discouraged. After all, the rights you enjoy today were borne on the backs of those that came before you. Civil resistance is not yet obsolete, and your opinion matters—no matter what the opposition says. So, pick up that sign, put on that pink hat, and get out there.

About the speaker: Dr. Erica Chenoweth teaches courses such as “Civil Resistance: How it Works” and “The Politics of Terrorism: Causes and Consequences from a Global Perspective” at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She co-founded the award-winning blog Political Violence @ a Glance and hosts Rational Insurgent. Her next book, Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know, comes out in 2020. To hear Dr. Chenoweth speak on this topic, check out her 2013 TEDx talk in Boulder, Colorado.

On Constitutional Morality: Thoughts from Delhi

Guest Contributor: Anmol Mittal is a 5th Year Student at National Law University, Delhi. 

The question of what the true import of the term “Constitutional morality” is has become pertinent following India’s (Application to Jammu and Kashmir) Presidential Order C.O. 272, and the subsequent State Reorganisation Bill introduced in the parliament. On the morning of August 5, through a combination of the Presidential order and the Reorganisation bill, the special status accorded to the State of Jammu & Kashmir, by way of Article 370, within the Indian Union, was revoked. To examine where the moral compass of India’s Constituent document lies, it’s necessary that the Constitution be considered as a ‘whole’, and not as being contained ‘essentially’ in Part-III on Fundamental Rights (Part-III rights). 

For the uninitiated, Part-III rights are, in a manner of speaking, India’s version of the bundle of rights in America guaranteed through the 1st, 5th, 6th amendments and so on. Article 19 corresponds directly with the 1st Amendment, Article 20 with the 5th Amendment, and the 6th Amendment has, in a manner of speaking, read into Article 21 and so on. Through a series of constitutional decisions, the Supreme Court of India has placed Part-III rights in the ‘infallible’ category–i.e. they cannot be amended to the ‘disadvantage’ of the holders of these rights. The legislative body is disempowered insofar as it’s amending authority is inhibited at the infallible category, a principle better understood in India as the “Basic Structure Doctrine”. This is, by no means, a mean feat. As Senior Advocate Arvind Datar notes in Courtroom Genius, no other country following a Westminister-type parliamentary democracy had ever had a legislation duly passed by Parliament struck down on grounds of fundamental rights violation. Kesavananda Bharati case, the genesis of such doctrine, really was an outlier. 

The seal of the constituent assembly of India

India, like various other countries with a protracted anti-colonial struggle, places its Constitution and the decisions of its Constituent Assembly as central in determining the validity of actions of present day government. While this in itself is hardly unusual, it is the political value that the Indian government still attaches to the Constitution that sets it apart from other nations. Seldom will one find instances in India of blatant disregard of the Constitution from members of the Executive branch of Government. On either side of the political divide, therefore, it is pertinent to understand India’s Constitution as a ‘whole’, and to not obfuscate the myriad considerations that the Constituent Assembly had in its mind when finalizing it in 1949. 

When drafting the Constitution, India’s Constituent Assembly must have been, as a matter of presumption, truly aware and cognizant of the implications of including Art. 358-359 in the Constitution. Specifically, Article 359, which states that: 

the right to move any court for the enforcement of such of [the right conferred by Part III (Except Art. 20 & 21)] as may be mentioned in the order……remain suspended for the duration for which the proclamation is in force”.

The presence of ‘Emergency Provisions’ under Art. 352 and its enabling provisions in Art. 358-359 suggest that the Constituent Assembly and its conception of a ‘Constitutional Morality’ considered a ‘threat’ to the Security of India as a bigger ‘emergency’ than the suspension of fundamental rights in mounting an effective counter to such a threat. If the converse, which is to say that the constituent assembly in its wisdom was convinced that Part-III rights would, by law, never be suspended from operation the correct position according to the Constituent Assembly, the text of the Constitution would not have so expressly contravened it. 

The only condition for suspension of Part-III rights is that there be a Proclamation of ‘Grave Emergency’ under Art. 352 by the President. This would be enough grounds to activate Art. 358, which automatically suspends all fundamental freedoms under Art. 19, such as speech, movement or even trade. Further, Art. 359 empowers the Government to, by issuing a Presidential Order, suspend the ‘enforcement’ of all other fundamental rights under Part-III.  

In Attorney General for India vs. Amratlal Prajivandas and Others, a nine-judge bench ruled on the extent of the President’s powers during a Proclamation of emergency under Art. 359. The Supreme Court, stating the view of the Constituent Assembly, held that the President was not clothed with the power to suspend fundamental rights but only their enforcement. This implied that while in theory fundamental rights exist, their judicial protection is suspended for the duration of the emergency. Essentially, writ jurisdiction, which enables anyone to move the court under Articles 32 & 226 for enforcement of their Part-III rights is suspended, except in cases where Fundamental Rights under Art. 20 & 21 are claimed to be violated, i.e. protections with respect to Convictions, such as the Right to Self-Incrimination, and the Right to Life. 

Therefore, all that the constitution requires to set in motion the suspension of generally revered Part-III rights is the meeting-of-minds of members of the Cabinet (The only time the word ‘Cabinet’ is used in the Constitution) and the communication of the same to the President, an exercise of purely executive power with no legislative approval. The provisions, after the Indian experience with the Emergency under PM Indira Gandhi, were tweaked to strengthen them by requiring the communication of such meeting-of-minds in writing. The grounds for the judgment of the Cabinet that security is under threat earlier included even ‘internal disturbances’, which was removed to limit the 3 grounds to War, External Aggression and Armed Rebellion. 

The import of Art.358-359 is further muddled following the Maneka Gandhi judgment. A 7 judge-bench laid to rest the AK Gopalan theory, that each Article in Part-III guarantees a distinguishable right, and each right is contained wholly in separate silos, with no overlap amongst each other. The Court disagreed with Gopalan, and constructed fundamental rights as being protected through overlapping provisions and not as ‘restricted’ under specific provisions of Part-III: i.e. a right may be guaranteed by and protected under several articles and not exclusively under one. The Right to Privacy, for instance, has been read as both, a part of the Right to Life (Article 21), because it is essential to the enjoyment of life, and also as under Right to Freedom of Expression (Article 19)

Therefore, the extent to which Part-III rights will be suspended (or not) during a proclamation under Art. 352 is subject to the minds in Bhagwan Das Road (The seat of the Indian Supreme Court) demarcating the extent to which a right falls under Art. 19 and not 20 & 21. This indicates a reversal to the ‘restricted’ conception of Fundamental rights as under Gopalan in order to safeguard their exercise, and also leaves to judicial discretion issues ill-suited for adjudication during an Emergency.

In effect, for a government exercising complete (‘Single’) majority in the Parliament, legislative approval for the passage of a bill, after the proclamation of an emergency and suspension of Fundamental rights, is only a matter of procedure. Freedom to speak and question the government in Parliament is the protection, in essence, that the Constitution ensures for our democracy. However, once these two parameters are met and the single ruling party has passed a bill, a 6-month suspension period follows before requiring legislative scrutiny again. 

Two conclusions can be drawn. One: ‘Constitutional Morality’ and ‘enforcement of Part-III rights’ are two separate spirits in the Indian Constitution, with the former comprising more than just the latter. As a result, it cannot be claimed that actions taken in violation of Part III rights invariably violate ‘Constitutional Morality’. Two: the suspension of Part-III rights can be considered violative of ‘Constitutional Morality’ only in cases where the prescribed ‘Constitutional process’ is violated. In other words, the essence of Part-III rights is contained not only in their substance, but also in the processes required to render them (un)enforceable. 

Seen in light to the developments in Kashmir, to criticise the media blackout and the militarisation of the valley only on grounds of the violation of the substance of Part-III may not be the same as stating that the actions undertaken are beyond ‘Constitutional Morality’. Emphasis needs to be added to the procedures which are required in order to ensure that Part-III rights are not suspended arbitrarily. It is the political cost of having to declare an ‘emergency’ to meet the Arbitrariness requirement and igniting the collective paranoia of Indians left over by Indira Gandhi which is crucial to any meaningful opposition to the actions of August 5 on grounds of ‘Constitutional Morality’. 

The Lost World of Moldova: Corruption and Human Rights

Guest Contributor: Ararat Osipian is the Alexander Mirtchev Visiting Professor and Scholar at the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center, Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University, Fellow of the Institute of International Education, and Fellow of the New University in Exile Consortium, USA. His research interests include corruption, inequalities in access to education, and sexual harassment.

Recent events in Moldova, including the political turmoil and the fight against corruption, sometimes become reminiscent of a witch-hunt. For Moldova, the story is not so new, as the pro-European Union Moldovan Parliament has been fighting pro-Russian President Igor Dodon for years. For the world, this is just a storm in a teacup. According to the locals, Moldova’s fight against corruption is mostly for resources and economic assets that may be accessed through the use of state power. Some of the formative results of such a fight are arrests on charges of corruption. Due to the anti-corruption campaign, some individuals prefer to leave the country. Vladimir Plahotniuc, a self-exiled Moldovan politician, businessman, philanthropist, and allegedly richest man in the country, reportedly landed in Miami.

A land-locked country of less than three million, Moldova looks like a lost world. Although the dissolution of the Soviet Union took place three decades ago, most scenery in Moldova is grey Soviet concrete. Despite the visual sleepiness, the country has significant internal political divisions, including the breakaway province of Transnistria. Moldova is the poorest country in Europe and a significant part of the national income comes from money remittances from abroad. Moldovans work in Russia and the European Union countries. While President Dodon has a pro-Russian attitude, the ruling party is oriented toward the EU. As a result, Moldova is akin to Buridan’s ass, stacked between the EU and Russia. Some citizens want to have closer ties with the EU or even be absorbed by Romania, while others prefer good relations with Russia. Such preferences largely depend on where people earn their living as day laborers: in the EU or in Russia.

Central square in Chiasnu, location of mass protests against increasing the President’s power through Constitutional reform.

Moldovans seem to believe that they should take part in political life of the country, yet are not sure that they will have any real impact on the way things are done. For instance, on June 11, 2017, I observed mass protests on the central square in Chisinau. Primarily, the protests were focused on a suggested constitutional reform that would give the President more power. Supporters of the change say having legislators represent particular constituencies would enhance the link between parliament and voters. Opponents say it is an attempt to skew the electoral system in favor of the ruling political party. 

Protesters moved as a procession to the front of the Parliament, totaling around three to five thousand. There were plenty of Moldovian flags and not much else in terms of posters and other visual materials. In general, protesters were very peaceful, chanting slogans such as “we will not surrender!” and blowing vuvuzelas, horns commonly used in soccer games by fans. Around two hundred police security forces maintained law and order by…. Before the leaders of the protest made speeches, there was a concert on the stairs of the Parliament. Overall, the whole event was very classically Soviet in style. 

Moldova’s political divide finds its reflection in public spaces throughout Chisinau, including in the form of graffiti, inscriptions and signs. Moldova’s Union with Romania is the most popular theme of such inscriptions. Moldova borders Romania, the EU member, while both countries speak Romanian language and many Moldovans hold Romanian citizenship in addition to their Moldavian citizenship. As a consequence, the President has recently introduced a suggestion to outlaw any advertisements of Unionism in an attempt to curb protesters’ access to public space to convey their complaints. In addition to walls, the giant stairs near the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) headquarters that lead to Valea Morilor Park are also used for political inscriptions. One such inscription reads in English, “#Save Donbass from Ukraine’s Army”, a reminder of the on-going hybrid war in neighboring country Ukraine. On the opposite side of the stairs, the inscription reads “Basarabia Romaneasca”.

Similar to other former socialist countries, Moldova has corruption aplenty. The situation with corruption in Moldova is rather dynamic. Upon my arrival in the country, the Mayor of Chisinau, Dorin Chirtoaca, was under house arrest and the ex-deputy prosecutor general was arrested as well, both on charges of corruption. These were not isolated incidences. While I was in Chisinau, the former Deputy Minister of the Interior and the judge of Chisinau city court were both arrested on charges of corruption. The arrests that took place while I was in the country were only the latest of many in a wave of anti-corruption arrests that rolled through the country in Spring of 2017. Prior to 2017, Moldova’s Vice- Minister of Economy and Minister of Agriculture and Food Industry were also arrested on corruption-related charges. The education sector, too, has been touched by the Moldavian government’s war against corruption. The list of educational administrators arrested in the case of falsified tenders on kindergarten meals includes daughter and son-in-law of advisor to the Minister of Education.

It is surprising that despite the government’s declaratory “war against corruption,” there are only a handful of scholarly works on corruption in Moldova. In fact, the National Library has only three sources on corruption in Moldova available in Russian language. One is a monograph on corruption and organized crime. Another source is a journal article. Finally, there is a collection of conference reports on academic corruption, published a decade ago. This collection comprises twenty-nine scholarly articles. Of these articles, sixteen are in Russian, twelve are in Romanian, and one is in English. The first and second articles in the collection are authored by the President of the Supreme Court of Justice and the Minister of the Interior, respectively. This is done in best Soviet traditions. Other authors include the ex-Minister of Justice and the acting rector of the Ismail Institute of Water Transport. It is clear that the authors of the papers published in this collection recognize that education in Moldova is one of the sectors most affected by corruption, and discuss it. Unfortunately, an anti-corruption campaign in Moldavian academia is not on the top of the government’s political agenda and “war against corruption”.

My findings from my fieldwork conducted in Moldova allow for some initial generalizations. My fieldwork in Moldova in June 2017 was essentially a small pilot project, ethnographic in its nature, aimed at getting to know the social environment in the country. This study employed several methods to investigate higher education corruption in Moldova. These included archival research, media sources, review of the scholarly literature, informal conversations with students, former students, faculty, simple empirical observations, and, of course, listening to other people’s conversations. I kept a diary and took notes.

 The respondents clearly understand the harm of academic corruption. The overall position of the respondents is that there is plenty of corruption in Moldova’s higher education institutions, including Moldova State University. This corruption often takes the form of bribery, embezzlement, fraud, and student absenteeism. The Student Alliance Against Corruption at Moldova State University is a manifestation of student activism, an attempt to exercise the power of collective action against corruption. But catching a corrupt faculty member may actually result in nothing. Similar to most countries, Moldova exercises presumption of innocence: not guilty until proven in court and sentenced. Even if a faculty member is caught red-handed while accepting a bribe, they will not lose their job until sentenced in court. However, such a case is not likely to even reach the court, as they are usually destroyed in the process of investigation because of corruption. In my research, it was evident that faculty members have some ideas about ethical conduct, or at least they know the term itself. However, for many, adherence to a personal ethical standard is threatened by the external pressures many faculty members face. For instance, a faculty member in the cafeteria at Moldova State University explained to me that she has ethical standards and is a law-abiding citizen, but there is pressure on her.

In addition to corruption in academia, there are clear disciplinary issues. I observed one such incident in front of the main entrance to the central administrative building. A faculty member—male, in his late 30s—asked a male student accompanied by his two friends to stop smoking. Smoking on campus is allowed only in designated areas. In response, the students told him to “go his own way,” which resulted in a verbal altercation. The faculty member reminded the students:  “By the way, the fine is 1200 lei” (equivalent to 60 Euros). This is equal to half of the average monthly salary in Moldova, so although with good intentions its is likely that he simply made up the sum on the fly. The student responded with “Call the cops” and refused to name himself. The faculty member threatened to find out the student’s identity by seeing the student during an examination. The student simply ignored him and remarked with irony “Yeah, you got me.” 

The student’s response to an authority figure is typical of the Soviet mentality of ignoring the rules, popularly formulated as “beat the state.” There are “No smoking” posters on campus, but students sometimes smoke right in front of them. Despite the ban on smoking inside the buildings, male restrooms are filled with cigarette butts. Since there are very few students, they are not afraid of the faculty and administrators. State funding is tied to the number of students, and thus the university needs students more than students need the university. This is a typical situation in the entire former Soviet bloc.

Hotel Chiasnu

Moldova State University is located on a small Soviet campus, although well-maintained. The main university building is partially renovated, but still far from ideal. There are large advertisement posters both inside and outside campus buildings, with job opportunities in marketing and sales, discounts on mobile phones, the sale of mountain bikes, etc. Some student dormitories are renovated as well, but most have not seen any repair since the Soviet era. The state of decay, so visible in the city’s architecture, has its impact on the academic community too. One example of such an impact was the need to change the hotel for a visiting professor from France. They initially booked Hotel Chisinau, located in downtown, for this visiting professor. However, due to the eerie looking surroundings and especially unsafe underground passage under the United Nations Square, they had to place her in another hotel. Next to the hotel is the National Academy of Sciences of Moldova. Across the street is Hotel National, now an abandoned concrete ghost. Formerly Hotel Inturist, built during the Soviet era to serve foreign tourists, this hotel no longer houses anyone.

With only 11,000 visitors a year, Moldova is the least visited country in Europe. The lost world, indeed. To be precise, the abandoned hotel in the center of the capital is not exactly empty. The hotel does not house anyone legally, as there are no guests or foreign tourists. There are, however, dozens of homeless children living within these bare concrete walls. They beg and steal on the streets during the day, and come to the ghost hotel at night. There are also drug addicts sharing the quarters with homeless children. Immoral behavior and sexual abuse of minors a wide possibility. On one occasion, three underage children were hospitalized in critical condition to a local clinic with poisoning-like symptoms, most likely due to inhaling glue. This is the cheapest and easiest way to get “high.” The state authorities are unable and unwilling to cope with the crisis due to extremely high levels of corruption. Instead of protecting human rights of minors, they find ways to close remaining orphanages and supply the street and criminal gangs with more homeless children.

Columbia Community Internship Experiences in Human Rights: A Panel Discussion

By Jalileh Garcia, RightsViews staff writer

On October 2, undergraduate and graduate Columbia students gathered to share their summer experiences undertaking internships in the field of human rights. An annual panel  organized by the Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR), this serves as an opportunity for students to learn from each others’ experiences applying human rights in the field. The different panelists shared about their work environment, advice, and the skills that helped them flourish in the internships. 

Isabella Irtifa is a graduate student getting her Master’s Degree through the ISHR. She spent her summer in New York City interning for UN Women, more specifically with the Women Peace and Security Team. Here she was able to delve into transitional justice matters, as well as issues of women’s peace and security. Isabella drafted presentations on peace initiatives, women’s role in achieving security, and researched potential partnerships to increase women’s participation in decision-making. 

Ana Perez is also a graduate student getting her Master’s Degree through the ISHR. Like Isabella, she also interned at the UN, working with the United Nations Global Compact, an organization that functions through a non-binding pact to facilitate sustainability practices in businesses. Her responsibilities were shaped by the many shifts in her team. As such, she was in charge of logistics, agenda-setting, and facilitating meetings with stakeholders. She also worked on campaigns and event organizing to promote human rights practices in businesses. 

Claudia Laurel Bell worked in the United Nations in the Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration Unit in New York City. The unit’s work centers around facilitating negotiations with armed groups or non-state actors enacting state violence by giving them incentives to give up arms or leave voluntarily, and helping them reintegrate to civilian society. She was in the Middle East and North Africa Mission, though she was also assigned other peace missions in different geographical locations. Claudia was able to get to know the division well, as she was able to be involved in the recruitment process in the Unit. She was also able to go beyond administrative work by doing conflict analysis. Now, her research is being used by the Cameroonian Integrated Taskforce. 

Trisha Mukherjee is a junior at Columbia College who interned at the New Sanctuary Coalition (NSC) in New York City. The organization has two programs which consist of one, a weekly clinic where individuals could access free, pro-se legal help and two, an accompaniment program that aims to support individuals by providing accompaniment to ICE check-ins and/or court hearings. Here, Trisha was able to help individuals fill out legal documents, as well as witness and hold officials accountable for their behavior towards clients in legal proceedings. She also accompanied many individuals to their hearings, providing any necessary moral support for them in what can be highly stressful time. Trisha noted the emotional difficulty of her work, as it is very personal and hands-on. 

From left to right: Daniela Bernstein, Trisha Mukherjee, Claudia Laurel Bell, Ana Perez, Isabella Irtifa

Daniela Bernstein is an undergraduate student in the School of General Studies who interned at the New York City Commission on Human Rights, a subset of the Mayor’s office. The Commission ensures that if a person’s rights have been infringed, they investigate it impartially. If the Commission finds that people’s rights have been violated, it supports individuals in the legal process to redress these violations. Daniela did intake, interviewed clients, and drafted memorandums and complaints for the Commission. 

Noura Birkle is a student in the Masters Program of the ISHR. She took part in the Student Volunteers Program run by the ISHR. Through the program, she was able to volunteer for the Aid Health Foundation in Mexico City, Mexico and learn about the inner workings of the organization. Noura translated for journalists in an event hosted by the Aid Health Foundation. Furthermore, Noura was also able to travel to the Guatemala-Mexico border and learn about HIV issues amongst the migrant population. 

The panelists found their internships through a variety of different avenues. Some applied on the UN database, others googled specific organizations they knew worked with women’s rights or human rights in New York City, while others had already established connections with the organizations through prior volunteering. 

All of the panelists recommended to the audience to spend time researching an organization prior to applying.  “Ask questions,” they stated. Organizations want to see that individuals are interested in the work that they are doing. Some of the panelists also stressed the importance of critical thinking and language skills.  One of the panelists also recommended students to intern abroad, if one had the resources and ability to do it. 

The panel ended with the some of the panelists encouraging the attendees to explore new things and to be open to the possibilities of different human rights careers. There are countless ways to support and defend human rights, from working at the UN as some students did to entering the legal field to compiling research. Exploration of these possibilities can open doors and interests that one did not even know existed. 

As a student who also undertook an internship in the field of human rights this past summer, the implication is that one’s work goes beyond one self 一 or at least it should. Although as workers in human rights field we shouldn’t neglect to take care of ourselves, it is important to remember that the efforts we are undertaking have the probability of impacting the lives of many others. As such, human rights should be participatory and inclusive, and put the needs of those we are supporting and defending before all else. Ultimately, we are facilitators in others’ lived realities. Our impact extends far beyond personal professional accomplishment. 

Columbia students’ internships in human rights are an incredible backbone to explore the field, get experience, and support the fight for human rights globally.    

Decoding India’s Faltering Extradition Track Record: A Human Rights Approach

Guest Contributor: Tanishk Goyal is a second year law student at the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata. 

On July 2 2019, The U.K refused to extradite a couple who were accused of murdering their adopted Indian boy and his brother-in-law in order to receive a life insurance payout. The UK’s reasoning for this refusal took place against the backdrop of the inhumane and degrading human rights conditions prevailing in India. This discharge added on to the intractably dismal extradition track record of India, despite it having ratified the 1949 Geneva Conventions and The U.N Convention Against Corruption which adopt the framework for extradition and mutual legal assistance between countries for an expedited and effective extradition process. One of the fundamental reasons for this situation is India’s international perception as a country which cannot ensure the safety of the offenders it extradites. 

Although India has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which lays down a human-rights based framework against torture, the country has still not been able to convince the international community that it can ensure the protection of the civil rights of the accused. 

The UK has justified its actions based on the ruling from a 1989 case in the European Court of Human Rights, Soering v the United Kingdom. This ruling argued that on the basis of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, before extraditing an individual, the requested state must conduct a strict judicial scrutiny of the extradition process in order to assess for any potential human rights violations against the accused which might take place in the requesting state. This reasoning is primarily intended to ensure the fulfillment of jus cogens norms as a part of the international obligation to protect human rights. Moreover, before the requested state can commence extradition proceedings, it needs to ensure compliance with its treaty obligations. Particularly, it ought to examine the compliance with the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which has been ratified by 166 state parties of which India is not one of them. Thus, as the ECHR understands it,  jus cogens and treaty obligations in fact do override state sovereignty if there is a possibility of the violation of an accused’s human rights in the requesting State.

 

The international community tends to perceive India as a country which continues to have a relatively higher capital punishment rate. This is amply illustrated by the fact that, in the year 2018, India had as many as 162 persons who were sentenced to death by the trial courts. The absence of provisions dealing with the human rights of the accused in the Indian Extradition Act, and the recent Criminal law (Amendment) Act, 2018, which favours a pro death penalty approach to sentencing, also drastically reduces India’s chances for conducting successful extraditions. The overcrowding of Indian jail cells, the lack of proper medical facilities, and the lawlessness and highhandedness of the police in India are oft cited reasons for refusing the extradition of its offenders. 

The appalling conditions of Indian jail cells and ill-treatment of individuals in custody is tremendously infamous internationally. This was illustrated by the 1990 case of Gill v Imundi, when a US District Court, on the basis of evidence offered to it from India, noted that sending the accused to India would lead to gross violations of human rights and the treatment that he would receive would shock the court’s “sense of decency.” Come 29 years later, the precedence of this case still evokes the same international sense that India disregards the human rights of its prisoners, which is one of the fundamental reasons why, even today, India faces the questions of the violation of due process and human rights before it can commence extradition proceedings. 

Beyond formal treatment of prisoners in custody, India also has a demonstrated history of vigilante justice, with vigilantes lynching people on mere suspicion and hearsay. India’s lack of any substantial jurisprudence or case law taking active steps to curb these lynchings also does not help it enhance its extradition numbers.

If India wishes to have success in future extradition requests, Indian Extradition Law needs to be amended to include provisions which ensure the protection of human rights of the extradited individuals. In practice, India must display appropriate precedence which shows that extradited individuals are treated as per international human rights obligations, and protected from unjust and inhumane conditions. Undoubtedly, India should accede to the  UNCAT in order to build a more persuasive case for extradition in the times to come. 

It is imperative to note that, while India assures the international community that an accused person, after being extradited, would be treated according to international humanitarian standards, it can only add weight to these assurances by carving out certain inroads into the Indian Extradition Law. This allows India to address its human rights issues by actively setting precedence which fundamentally transforms its misconceived perception in the international realpolitik.  

Of Orwellian Times and Beyond: Examining India’s Recently Amended Anti-Terror Law

Guest Contributor Ashwin is an Advocate practising across trial and appellate courts in India. He belongs to ’18 B.A.LL.B.(Hons.) class of Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, India.

When governments decide to condemn one as being “involved in terrorism” simply on the basis of belief and nothing else, one cannot help but wonder whether “Thought Police” from George Orwell’s 1984 is being brought to life. To be condemned solely on beliefs would indeed be blasphemous for the vires of justice. The Indian Parliament has recently introduced a process which allows individuals to be subjectively designated as terrorists by the government. The recent amendments to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act allow the Indian Central Government to designate any individual as being “being involved in terrorism” based solely on, as stated,“if [the Central Government] believes that such… individual is involved in terrorism.”

 Violation of the Principles of Natural Justice & lack of Procedural Fairness

These recent amendments to the Act threaten the principles of natural justice and procedural fairness. The principles of natural justice underlie the need for procedural fairness. These principles aim at safeguarding the right to a fair trial procedure. The two most widely recognized principles of natural justice are audi  alteram partem and nemo judex in causa sua.  Audi Alteram Partem refers to  the right of a person to be heard before he or she is condemned by law. Similarly, nemo judex in causa sua literally implies that none shall be a party to their own cause.This implies  that a party which levels an allegation, cannot adjudicate upon the accusation as well.   While commenting on the fitness of a legislation vis-à-vis principles of natural justice, in the landmark case of Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India the apex court laid down that “…  legislation must take processual provisions which accord with fair norms, free from extraneous pressure and, by and large, complying with natural justice. Unilateral arbitrariness, police dossiers, faceless affiants, behind-the-back materials, oblique motives and the inscrutable face of an official sphinx do not fill the ‘fairness’ bill…

Under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the Government of India is not required to establish convincing evidence or even give an opportunity of representation to an individual, before they are designated as a person involved in terrorism. The government, solely acting on its “belief”, can pass an order unilaterally,thereby violating the principle of audi alteram partem.  Additionally, there is no requirement to hand over the reasons in writing to the person being so condemned. 

The only instance of a statutory hearing offered through the legislation comes after the label of being “involved in terrorism” is attached. This hearing takes place in the form of a review process, under S.36 of the Act. This review process entails a summary proceeding by a Review Committee, which assesses whether the grounds of detention are indeed valid or not. The review proceedings award wide discretion to the presiding adjudicators since its manner of working has not been comprehensively outlined in the legislation. Notably, the power of appointing an adjudicator to hear an accused’s review plea lies with the Central Government, which also designates the person as a terrorist.  Pursuant to S. 37(3), the Central Government may appoint the judge who is to preside over a Review Committee. While in the event of appointing a sitting judge, the concurrence of the Chief Justice of the High Court is required; if the government chooses to designate a retired High Court judge to hear the issue, then in such a case complete discretion regarding the choice of adjudicator lies with the Central Government. Thus, the same authority which condemns an individual for being involved in terrorism, i.e., the Central Government, has also been awarded the discretion to appoint the person who shall decide the condemned individual’s review plea.

Amendments to the Anti-terror law & India’s international obligations

The legislation also derogates from India’s international obligations. This is particularly true in relation to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which India is a party. The ICCPR lays down under Article 14 that “…everyone shall be entitled to a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal...” Furthermore, the covenant provides the right “To be informed promptly and in detail in a language which he understands of the nature and cause of the charge against him.” The ICCPR calls such rights “minimum guarantees”. 

Interestingly enough, the Government of India has itself recognized the obligation of a state to ensure a fair trial by relying on ICCPR in its own written submissions to the International Court of Justice in the Jadhav Case, even according it the status of an erga omnes obligation.

To have a zero-tolerance policy towards terrorism is indeed a welcome step. However, in doing so, one cannot manifest a procedure which awards excessive power. The recent terror amendments have evoked criticism within India, with scholars and writers looking at the amended law as a potential threat which may lead to civil death for those who dissent, and even India’s very own McCarthyism moment

It must be noted that in the past more than 2/3rd of the cases under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act have resulted in acquittals or discharge of the accused. The unamended Act already defines a  “Terrorist act” and accords an independent trial procedure and punishment for it.The recent amendments add erroneous discretion to an Act that ought to be based in principles of procedure and natural justice. 

Being labeled as a terrorist has immense consequences for the accused. This designation should only be awarded once a person is convicted of committing a terrorist act under the Act, pursuant to proper procedural review. This would ensure that the label of being involved in terrorism comes after appraisal of evidence by an independent court rather than simply the belief of the executive.

Celebrating World Indigenous Peoples’ Day and Confronting Challenges in Defending Indigenous Languages and Territory

By Jalileh Garcia, RightsViews staff writer 

August 9th marked the 2019 International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. The theme for this year is Indigenous Peoples’ Languages. 

According to the United Nations Development Programme, it is estimated that there are 370-500 million indigenous peoples in the world, representing over 5,000 different cultures. Furthermore, a majority of the 7,000 languages in the world were created and are spoken by Indigenous Peoples. Yet, despite this immense lingual diversity, human rights experts indicate that four in 10 Indigenous languages are in danger of disappearing. The main reason for the disappearance of these languages is the fragility of systems to ensure that Indigenous Peoples rights to land and territory are respected, protected, and guaranteed, including, among other reasons, forced assimilation. 

As such, entire cultures are at risk of disappearing as companies and governments are stripping Indigenous communities of their lands. These cultures include the belief in a special relationship with the environment─land has physical, cultural, and spiritual value. While Indigenous Peoples around the world have varying cultures and languages, they have all shared a common history in the face of colonization and oppression. 

Because of this history and present day marginalization, Indigenous Peoples around the world are some of the world’s most vulnerable populations. Forced assimilation that undermines Indigenous traditions and languages, institutional discrimination, and harassment enacted by extractive industries and government practices are just a few examples of the challenges Indigenous Peoples face today.

For Indigenous Peoples, the defense of the right to identity, language, self-determination, and land can be deadly in an ever capital-driven world. The production of raw materials by large corporations for the sake of acquiring capital has consistently come before the lives and needs of indigenous people, along with other communities that have historically been marginalized, disrupting land, resources, and culture.

Many Indigenous Peoples choose to protest the destruction of the environment, recognizing the threat that extractive industries pose on both their livelihoods and global welfare. Some corporations lash back at protesters with violence. In 2018 alone, 164 land and environmental defenders were reported killed, according to Global Witness, reporting that “indigenous people are on the front line of these killings, along with attacks by countries’ legal systems.” In 2017, Honduras was considered the deadliest country for land and environmental defenders, affecting many of the Indigenous Peoples who live there.  

Honduras has signed various international agreements, such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), that are meant to safeguard the rights of indigenous communities in the country. Additionally, Article 346 of the Honduran Constitution protects the rights, territories, and natural resources of the Indigenous population. Important to the UNDRIP and Indigenous Human Rights is the principle of free, prior, and informed consent by those who wish to use any territory or resources belonging to Indigenous Peoples.

Yet, despite all of this, Indigenous communities in Honduras have been excluded from  free, prior, and informed consent and consultation regarding the development of extractive industries such as mining, hydro-electric, and monoculture projects that occur in their territories. As a result, this has caused conflicts between the Indigenous communities and the state, as the state has allowed for companies to enter their territories and extract raw materials from their lands. Effectively, this has had devastating effects from the contamination of water sources to a loss of food supply, infringing on cultural values and overall violating Indigenous rights. Throughout this, both the state and companies are complicit in these extractive schemes. 

Berta Caceres

One of the iconic figures in the fights against extractive industries in Honduras was Berta Caceres, a Lenca indigenous leader, human rights defender and the co-founder of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). 

In retaliation for her work against projects that sought to extract natural resources in the Lenca territory― such as the building of the Agua Zarca dam which was licensed to the Desarrollos Energeticos S.A. (DESA) company― she faced criminalization, threats and attacks. In 2016, Berta Caceres was murdered in her home of La Esperanza, Intibuca. 

In November 2017, in a publication by the Grupo Asesor Internacional de Personas Expertas, or the International Advisory Group of Expert Persons (GAIPE), it was confirmed that the murder of Berta Caceres was organized and financed by the executives of the company DESA. The reason? To end any and all opposition against building the dam. 

The report also accused the company’s executives of being responsible for creating campaigns that sought to discredit Berta Caceres, stalking  COPINH members, instituting threats, hiring gunmen, sabotaging news outlets, bribing officials of the Justice department, and paying police forces.  

Seven people have been found guilty of executing the crime, though there were severe irregularities in the entire process. While multiple executives organized and financed Berta Caceres’ murder, only the executive president of the company, David Castillo, was accused. Even then, his preliminary hearing was suspended indefinitely and the crime remains in impunity. 

Berta Caceres’ case is only one of the many in the country, and one in hundreds of cases around the world. Nonetheless, it represents how Indigenous Peoples have actively defended their rights. Though others actively participate at the UN in Permanent Missions, each way represents a fight against a system that denies Indigenous Peoples right to identity, language, self-determination, and land. 

As we celebrate World Indigenous Peoples’ Day, we reflect on the loss of languages of indigenous peoples’ around the world, as well as the complicity that our governments and companies have in violating the rights of a population that have historically been marginalized. We also celebrate the rich cultures that make up the Indigenous Peoples around the world, who are working at the local and international levels towards crystallization of their human rights. Indigenous Peoples and their allies are also remembering Berta Cáceres and her contribution to the fight for Indigenous rights, as they prepare to celebrate the diversity and beauty of Indigenous languages in 2019.

LGBTIQ rights |Recent developments in Kenya

Guest contributor Brian Dan Migowe is a graduate of the 18′ LL.M class at the Center for the Study of Human Rights at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK. 

July 2019 marks a month since the Kenyan High Court dismissed a consolidated petition of the National Lesbian and Gay Human Rights Commission (‘NGLHRC’) and other interested parties seeking inter alia abolishment of sections 162(a),(c) and 165 of the Kenyan penal code, which forbid same-sex relations and prescribe a jail sentence of up to 14 years for those found guilty. A long-awaited pronouncement, the NGLHRC’s challenge to the constitutional standing of these two legal provisions has been a subject before the court for the last quadrennium. Petitions have come to the court on two separate occasions. The first petition was initiated by Eric Gitari (then the Executive Director of NGLHRC) in 2016. Two other organizations, the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (‘GALCK’) and the Nyanza, Rift Valley and Western Kenya Network (‘NYARWEK’), along with individual petitioners who had been personally affected by the laws, filed a second petition in the same year raising similar arguments. The High Court consolidated the two petitions and referred them to a three-judge bench.

Substantially, the petitioners argued that Kenyan anti-LGBTQ+ laws stood in stark breach of the assurance of protection from discrimination and the right to human dignity and privacy as proscribed in the country’s constitution. In Kenya, guaranteed rights include the freedom from discrimination (Article 27), the right to dignity (Article 28), freedom and security of the person (Article 29), the right to privacy (Article 31), and the right to the highest attainable standard of health (Article 43). Petitioners further argued the government’s lack of political will to enforce in affirmation the rights of minorities and marginalised groups, per article 56.

The respondents to the case, led by the Attorney General (representing the Government) and a group of interested parties, argued that the constitution outlaws all same-sex relations. Additionally, they claimed that the LGBTIQ community is not assured categorical protection from discrimination, given that the country’s values and morals as enunciated in the constitution are against same-sex conduct and interrelations. Accordingly, the law was legitimate insofar as it criminalised such said conduct.

In its dismissal pronouncement, the High Court rejected claims put forward by the petitioners, finding that the impugned provisions were well defined in the Kenyan law, thus not ambiguous; and  that the provisions remained non-discriminatory without singling the LGBTIQ persons unless contra evidence was sufficiently presented and proved. The court also argued that the constitutional rights to privacy and dignity are not absolute and should be read in the context of Article 45 (2) of the constitution, which states that “Every adult has the right to marry a person of the opposite sex,” an ultimate [narrow] read which underpinned the dismissal of the petition. In the bench’s reasoning, decriminalizing the impugned provisions would indirectly open the floodgates in favour of same-sex marriage, an argument already contented to be imprecise. 

The ruling flies in the face of several other Kenyan court decisions that have upheld LGBTIQ people’s fundamental rights. In 2015, the High Court ruled in support of NGLHRC in a case that concerned freedom of assembly and association. The Non-Governmental Organizations Board (NGO Board), a government agency, had refused to register NGLHRC after three failed attempts , claiming that doing so would be ‘acting inconsistency to the laws of the republic’ and that the organization’s actions would be permitting immorality. The court found that the NGO Board was impermissibly discriminating based on the presumed sexual orientation and gender identity of NGLHRC’s personnel, in violation of constitutional protections around equality and non-discrimination [Article 27]. The Court of Appeal recently upheld  this ruling in March although the NGO Board has appealed to the Supreme Court which now awaits the determination of the Apex court.

A 2018 court decision continued the seeming progress by Kenyan courts. After forced anal examinations were carried out on two people arrested in Kwale by the police in 2015, on suspicion that they were gay, a three-judge bench of the Court of Appeals handed down a ruling in 2018 overturning the orders that set pace for abhorrent perceived medical acts and in effect stopped any such examinations on people charged with consensual homosexual conduct. 

Positively pedalling, especially on issues concerning transgender persons, Kenyan courts have moved the needle forward. In 2014, the High Court ruled in favour of a transgender activist, Audrey Mbugua, on her right to have her school certificate reissued with her female name, and with no gender marker. A separate 2014 ruling also compelled the NGO Board to register Transgender Education and Advocacy (TEA), a non-governmental organization led by Mbugua.

Thus, the High Court’s most recent failure to decriminalize same-sex relations [repeal Ss 162 (a), (b) & 165] both reverses previous precedential progress and transgresses on its international law obligations. In its 1994 decision in Toonen v. Australia, the UN Human Rights Committee – the body that interprets the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Kenya is a state party – held that laws prohibiting consensual same-sex conduct infringe on the rights to privacy and non-discrimination of persons of this association – contra to the scholarship now being developed by the High Court at Milimani, Nairobi!

The 24 May ruling is particularly disappointing considering progress elsewhere in Africa and around the world. In January, Angola presented into operation a revised penal code that no longer punishes so-called “vices against nature.” Other African countries that have equally soundly revoked anti-homosexuality laws through penal code reform in recent years include Seychelles, Mozambique, Sao Tome and Principe, Lesotho and Botswana. Visibly slow pedalling are  33 countries in Africa which still have laws on the books that outlaw consensual same-sex relations. Elsewhere in the world, courts are striking down these anachronistic colonial-era laws that criminalize same-sex relations, such as Kenya’s penal code. India decriminalized same-sex relations through a landmark court ruling in 2018, as did Trinidad & Tobago, while Belize’s Supreme Court struck down its sodomy law in 2016. Palau, Nauru, and Northern Cyprus have decriminalized homosexual conduct through legal reform in recent years.

Kenya’s government has adopted an ambivalent stance on LGBTIQ rights, with dissimilar remarks on a case for their recognition and safety from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Kenya accepted a recommendation at the UN Human Rights Council in 2015 to adopt legislation prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, consistent with constitutional guarantees of non-discrimination, but no such legislation has been passed. Most notably, as the appeal at the apex court remains on the May 24 ruling, LGBTIQ persons shall continue, directly and indirectly, in similar or dissimilar fashion continue to suffer indifference to their equal protection by the law recognition their [own] existence, at least for now.

Gaza On Screen: An Interview with Film Festival Curator, Nadia Yaqub

By: Laura Charney, RightsViews Staff Writer

This April, the Center for Palestine Studies at Columbia University hosted the “Gaza on Screen” film festival highlighting films made by Gazans and about Gaza. Curated by Dr. Nadia Yaqub, “Gaza on Screen” offered an invitation to not only bear witness to the lived struggles and resilience of Gazans, but also the opportunity to engage the ways that Gazans articulate and envision their own experiences.

For over twenty years, Palestinian film festivals across North America and Europe have brought Palestinian stories to international audiences. However, Palestinians in Gaza face particularly prohibitive measures that inhibit the communication of their stories. Since 2007, Israel has maintained a blockade on Gaza, controlling its airspace, coastline, and borders, and restricting the movement of goods and humans entering or leaving the territory.

It was not until this past April at Columbia University that a film festival focusing exclusively on Gazan stories came to life. In an attempt to shine light on the issues specifically facing Gazans, “Gaza on Screen” strove to unsettle some of the borders that hinder the circulation of Gazan stories.

The three-day-long film festival programmed feature-length films, documentaries, short films, and a master class with Abdelsalam Shehada, a Gaza-based film director who has made over 20 documentaries.

There was also a Q&A with some of the student filmmakers who directed the short films. Mohammed S. Ewais, a student at Al-Aqsa University, joined the film festival over Skype from Gaza City to discuss his film, We Love Life (2015), a documentary-style portrait of Gaza-based graffiti artist Belal Khaled, who transforms architecture gone derelict from Israeli explosions into works of art. The title of the film comes from the Mahmoud Darwish poem: “We love life if we find a way to it.” When asked if there was a political message in his film, Ewais responded, “To spread awareness of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. No one knows what is going on here.”

 

Because of the embargo, Gaza faces a water crisis, constant electricity outages, destroyed infrastructure, and a deteriorated economy. Israel’s multi-layered apparatus of state control is justified under the pretense of security, while denying Gazans the tools to secure their own livelihoods. The intensive border regime means that international perceptions of Gaza are often marred by the impossibility of accessing and understanding the actual experiences of Palestinians in Gaza.

In the keynote speech at the Dreams of a Nation Palestine Film Festival at Columbia University in 2003, Edward Said said that “the whole history of the Palestinian struggle has to do with the desire to be visible.” Palestinian-produced films, like those shown at “Gaza on Screen,” engages this struggle, through bringing to the fore the names, memories, and personalities of individuals and families who are often represented in broad and stereotypical strokes in dominant media narratives.

The pursuit of being “visible” is also bound within the limitations that Palestinians face when attempting to access their own written histories. Since Israel invaded Beirut in 1982, Palestinian national archives have been in the hands of the Israeli Defense Force. The Israeli state has placed restrictions and legal obstacles that hinder access to the Palestinian archives, effectively controlling the possibilities of generating Palestinian-produced historical knowledge by rendering it inaccessible to its traditional owners.

Visual material is one force that disrupts this censorship. Film affords the potential of narrating stories that have been displaced in the archives. Palestinian cinema – factual and fictive – has been a crucial force in making visible political realities that authentically reflect lived experiences.

The circulation of Palestinian film allows stories to speak to audiences across borders. When describing his feelings on visual narratives, Ewais stated: “Cinema is my only way out.” Because of the blockade, he has never left Gaza. Ewais is one of the many directors and filmmakers who contributed to telling Gazan stories at “Gaza on Screen.”

“Gaza On Screen” was curated by Nadia Yaqub, Professor and Chair in the Department of Asian Studies and Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at UNC Chapel Hill. Dr. Yaqub’s research critically examines Arab cultural texts, and has recently focused on Palestinian literature and visual culture. Her latest book, Palestinian Cinema in the Days of Revolution (2018), analyzes films of the Palestinian national liberation movement through the late 1960s and 1970s.

I spoke to Dr. Yaqub over the phone to discuss Gazan self-representation on film, the possibilities of visually and transnationally communicating resistance, and the urgency of telling stories that are meant to be silenced.

 

 

Dr. Nadia Yaqub

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Laura Charney: What did you want to illuminate about Gaza when curating this film festival?

Nadia Yaqub: The idea was Hamid Dabashi’s [Hagop Kervokian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University]. He approached me and asked me to curate this film festival. I had never done any work specifically on Gaza, but it immediately sounded interesting. I have done many years of work on Palestinian cinema, and I had thought a lot about the difference between filmmaking in exile, filmmaking under occupation, and the filmmaking among citizens of Israel.

Gaza as a particular unit has an interesting, distinct history within the larger Palestinian history because of its relationship to resistance. The resistance movement, the PLO as a militant organization, the first Intifada, all have their origins in the Gaza Strip.

Geographically, it’s this little piece carved out of Israel. Gazan residents live in close proximity to the homes that they lost in 1948. The huge influx of refugees in 1948 utterly changed the demographics of the area, and that has just been exacerbated ever since, through rapid population growth. If you can define the Palestinian condition as one of exile and displacement and ongoing dispossession, Gaza is always the extreme case.

There is a lot I couldn’t include in the film festival, but I was immediately interested in the variety of film material – the ways in which Gaza had been manipulated by different actors in film, the ways in which Gazans had represented themselves, the ways in which Gazans or others have tried to intervene in the visual materials about Gaza such that it is not only defined by conflict and dispossession, but also in fiction film, experimental film, in documentaries.

What I tried to do with the festival was very briefly trace a history of image making. At the same time, include these various types of representations and to represent different perspectives, but always varieties of what I would call a Palestinian-centric perspective. I wasn’t interested in including how Israel views Gaza, or how Iran or Hezbollah, who are close allies of Gaza, support or use Gaza for their own ends. Those are all interesting questions that I did not want to broach. There is a lot of film that is made from the perspective of solidarity activists – people who were on the ground in 2008, 2009, who participated in various flotillas, for instance. I wasn’t interested in those stories for the purposes of this film festival. That’s what I mean by a Palestinian-centric view.

LC: Because Gaza is under blockade, this film festival provided an opportunity for many to be let in on how Gazans view themselves, and Gaza itself. International understanding of Gaza often comes from how journalists cover it, or how the Israeli media portrays it. The student films provided a kind of radical disruption from these dominant representations – hearing their stories, the way they want to tell them, is quite rare.

NY: Yes. Film is obviously a form of communication. People make films in order for other people to see them: there’s something sort of inherently transnational about it. In some ways that are different from literature, film is about communicating outward. Films about Palestine are almost always made for outside audiences. Within that framework that’s kind of messy and transnational, it’s hard to define – what is a Palestinian film? Does the director have to be Palestinian, and what does that mean? Do they have to have Palestinian blood in their veins? Do they have to have lived in Palestine or within a Palestinian community? Those are messy questions. Nonetheless, we somehow, through that messiness, have to sift out the Palestinian voices, and the Gazan voices, and attempt to recognize what they are saying. Some films in the series – Antoni Akacha’s film Voices from Gaza, and Savona’s film Samouni Road – were not made by Palestinians, but I did feel as if they fit within this framework.  That is probably a product of those filmmakers’ long engagement with Palestine and Gaza.

LC: I noticed that a lot of the films on the lineup were documentaries, ethnographic, or experimental of some kind. I’m thinking about what metaphor can do to express the inexpressible, and the choice behind not including so many fictional films. Is there a draw in Gaza toward experimental or documentary films? How does this reflect the landscape of filmmaking in Gaza, and how Palestinian and Gazan filmmakers articulate their own stories?

NY: In my research, I found that there are about 15 feature-length fictional films that have been made about or in Gaza. Five of them were made in Egypt in the fifties and early sixties – they’re Egyptian films, where Gaza is this territory where Egyptian characters go to work our their problems. They’re very melodramatic.

11 feature films have been made from the early 90s until today. That’s not insignificant if you think about how tiny Gaza is. But the vast majority of films are documentary. The number of essay and experimental films in the program are not reflective of their percentage of output.

A lot of documentaries made about Gaza are international – to tell an international audience, ‘this is how difficult it is to cross borders,’ ‘this is what’s going on with fisherman,’ ‘this is what it’s like to live in a refugee camp.’ Where you draw the line between a reportage, which is a bit longer than a news story, and address in a little more depth a current situation, and a documentary, is almost impossible to decide sometimes. There’s a huge amount of this material, but it makes it a conversation about journalism, rather than about filmmaking. There is a bias toward the unusual in the film festival that I did.

LC: Considering the history of stolen Palestinian archives, or archives that are inaccessible to the public, I would imagine that you faced some limitations in putting this selection of films together. What were some of the challenges you faced in curating this selection?

NY: For this film festival, the issue wasn’t really stolen archives. Of course, there is the famous case of the five PLO archives that disappeared during the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982, including the archive of the Palestinian Cinema Institute, but bear in mind that that filmmaking did not include very much material about Gaza. I did include one of those films which has been found – it has not yet been restored so the copy that was screened was scratchy – but that may be the only film from the early period, before 1982, that the PLO made that focused on Gaza.

The problem of the archive more generally was definitely a challenge. This is a particularly Palestinian problem in the sense that there is no national Palestinian archive or archive project. To be fair, if you look across the Arab world, the difficulty of accessing archives of Arab film in other Arab countries has not necessarily helped film scholarship on the Arab world. There’s the notorious case of Syria. From the mid-60s until the Syrian civil war, they funded, produced, many hugely interesting films. Those films would be released, often during the Damascus International Film Festival, perhaps some of them would screen at, say, the Carthage Film Festival in Tunis, and then they were locked up and no one got to see them. Film scholarship on Syrian film has been severely limited for that reason. This may be one of the most extreme cases, but it is also not easy to do research on Algerian film, Tunisian film, Moroccan film.

I could imagine if the PA [Palestinian Authority] were to form a film archive, the problem of Palestinian politics – the Fatah/Hamas split, for instance – would be the big issue, and how the PA has dealt with the PLO’s militant past. Those questions would probably give rise to a problematic archive.

LC: Something that came up among audience members throughout the film festival was how resistance and political struggle is framed in these films. Abdelsalam Shehada’s films, for instance, are gorgeous, but they also represent an ideal of nonviolent resistance. This is something that some people grappled with. At the same time, I think the goal of a lot of these films was to disrupt normative assumptions about Gaza. How do these films situate themselves within a wider history of Palestinian political struggle in cinema?

NY: I would say that filmmakers are quite savvy in responding to the global context in which they are working. In the 1970s, when you had a militant Palestinian film movement, the idea of national liberation through armed struggle was global. It was accepted as a legitimate means for oppressed people to achieve their rights. There was, for instance, the Vietnam War, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the struggles in Latin America – they are allies of the PLO. The PLO were not, by themselves, advocating armed resistance.

The struggle was placed within the context of the Cold War, so it’s complex. Of course, many of these organizations were labelled as terrorist within mainstream media in the West, but there were also allies. It was a completely differently landscape. Now, the ideological battle line is drawn between the Muslim world and the rest. So, Palestinian militancy is really only alive within an Islamic militant movement. There’s only very little marginal support for that in the West, and there’s lots of reasons for that – I’m not arguing by any means that leftists in the West should support Hamas or Hezbollah, but we also don’t need to glorify or romanticize the nature of armed resistance from the 1970s. That was really problematic and compromised, both in terms of the Palestinian movement, and globally.

For a Palestinian filmmaker who wants to engage with a western audience, there is no space for any kind of claim of violent resistance. Nonviolence is the only space. You have to work within the space you’re given.

LC: This is a really crucial distinction – understanding who the films are made for. Not to sound insensitive, but there is a need to humanize Gaza, because of the dominant narrative that associates Gazans with terrorism. That was, to me, why a film like Samouni Road was so powerful.

NY: I think that’s an extremely powerful film. There was a scene that really stood out to me, where the family talks about their apolitical stance. They’re not a part of any political party, they don’t want money from Hamas, they don’t want their tragedy to be exploited. It seemed to me – that was a message to us.

LC: Yes – it also makes me wonder, as a western audience, the complexity with which we are prepared to give Palestinian subjects on film. The dichotomy between peaceful resistance – being apolitical, nonviolent – versus active political resistance, is reductive. Yet it is only the former that tends to be palatable to western audiences.

NY: This is interesting in the context of the history of human rights filmmaking. Monica Maurer is a German filmmaker who worked within the PLO in the last years of Beirut. 1979 was declared the UN International Year of the Child, so a lot of filmmakers took advantage of that to create films about children. [Maurer] made a film called “Children of Palestine.” The film is structured around the declaration of the rights of the child – they have the right to family and freedom, to work and education and time to play, a national identity, and several other rights. She structured the film around each of these rights and shows how the PLO, through its armed struggle, is working to mitigate the ways in which Israel is denying children these rights. The film won first prize at the International Human Rights Film Festival in Bulgaria in 1980. So militancy, as a way of working towards human rights, used to not be incompatible. Returning to what we were discussing earlier, the discourse has changed around the world. There are things you could say in the early 80s that you cannot say now.

LC: It is fascinating to think of the construction of victimhood on film – how constructing the ideal victim often necessitates taking away any kind of political agency.

NY: Yes, and that is the central challenge that Palestinian filmmakers face today. I suppose that this was one of the things I was working through in curating the film festival: exactly how you can communicate Palestinian experiences in a way that works in this context, without reinforcing that image of the Palestinian as a victim.

Technology and Privacy in Refugee Aid

By: Parima Kadikar, guest contributor. Parima is a rising senior at Columbia College studying Middle Eastern Studies and Human Rights.

In an exceedingly digital world, humanitarian aid for refugees is being revolutionized by technological innovation. International non-profit organizations and UN agencies have begun to employ strategies like biometric scanning and blockchain technology to streamline aid delivery and prevent identity fraud. While these strides are noteworthy examples of progress, it is also important to address the potential privacy concerns that could result.

In the context of conversations sparked by the Patriot Act— Congress’s response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks which expanded federal jurisdiction over private data and communications for the purpose of intelligence gathering– and, more recently, by the Cambridge Analytica data-mining campaign which harvested the data of millions of Facebook users without their knowledge or consent for conservative political campaigning, many Americans are protective of both their physical and digital privacy. The evidence of this can be seen from taped webcams in college classrooms to frustration with the TSA at airports to the rising popularity of secure messaging apps for activists.

For refugees, however, concerns about privacy permeate all aspects of life. If they are living in a country with strong xenophobic sentiments, refugees may wish to  conceal their identities due to fear of discrimination. Additionally, many escape or resettlement routes taken by refugees as they flee their home nations require unauthorized border crossings. BBC has produced a video simulating the privacy dangers associated with this when an asylum seeker has a cell phone; if their location is being tracked as they flee to safety, they could be targeted by border authorities and their asylum requests could be denied for entering unauthorized.

As well as the concern about losing asylum status in their destination, refugees face the possibility that the group(s) persecuting them– whether it be a government regime, militia, or other non-state actors– could also discover their location or involvement in activism through technology usage. Such a discovery could present immediate threats to a refugee’s life, or at the very least prevent them from ever returning to their home country.

One attempt to secure refugee data is the World Food Programme’s (WFP) use of biometric scanning and blockchain technology to distribute aid in Jordan’s Zaatari camp, the second largest refugee camp in

Aerial view of Jordan’s Zaatri refugee camp, where technology is used by WFP

the world. “Eye Pay,” a project within the organization’s “Building Blocks” program, allows refugees to access a digital wallet by scanning their irises at participating shops within the camp.

While this technology is impressive, it raises concerns about feasibility. Building Blocks runs on a private-permission blockchain, which addresses data security concerns but is difficult to expand in scale.The WFP’s technology is supported by the cryptocurrency Ethereum, meaning that users who buy, sell, and mine this currency validate the chain. Therefore, the market for Ethereum must grow significantly before a program like Building Blocks can be increased in scope.

In order to successfully manage the data for large refugee populations, WFP is faced with a question of how to incentivize Ethereum holders to increase the level of coordination in these initiatives. As

Biometric scanning such as “Eye Pay” uses technology to create digital wallets accessible via iris imaging

blockchain technology provides a significantly more secure alternative to storing refugees’ data on UN databases, a successful means of incentivizing coordination so as to expand the existing program could lead to outcomes that redefine refugee aid.

However, until such technology can be implemented on a larger scale, the threat of privacy breaches remains very real for refugees. In order for a displaced person to receive official refugee status from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) (and, as a result, access to aid earmarked for refugees), they must submit a great deal of personal data to the agency. While it is understandable that UNHCR needs to collect information like employment and health records from applicants to prevent identity fraud, Privacy International, a non-profit organization that pressures companies and governments to implement better data privacy regulations, warns that issues arise when it shares jurisdiction over this data with other groups.

It is difficult to know about specific instances of UNHCR privacy breaches as the agency does not publicize this information. A 2014 breach of Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP), however, led to the publication of the personal details of over 9,000 unsuccessful asylum seekers on the DIPB website. These details included full names, gender, citizenship, date of birth, period of immigration detention, location, boat arrival details, and the reasons that each applicant was denied refugee status.

A lawsuit was subsequently filed against the DIBP, alleging that the asylum seekers whose information was publicly revealed were treated unfairly during the review process. While the High Court of Australia ruled that the representative litigants in this case were treated fairly by the government, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) is currently (almost 5 years later) assessing whether or not the affected asylum seekers should be compensated for the violation.

Though the Australian breach occurred within a national government and not the UNHCR, it offers a high-profile example of how displaced people can suffer when their privacy is violated. As the global refugee crisis continues to intensify with each passing year, it is imperative that the UNHCR and its partners dedicate more resources and manpower to addressing privacy concerns. The few examples discussed in this blog, such as the WFP’s Building Blocks program, are steps in the right direction. However, until they can be implemented on larger scales, refugees remain especially vulnerable.