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Sanctuary Law – Can Religious Liberty Protect Immigrants?

Summers in Arizona can be unforgiving. One quickly learns to test the surface temperature of objects left in the sun before committing to full contact and to never wear shorts on leather car seats. From May through September, it is not at all uncommon to avoid the outdoors as much as possible; the reprieve of air conditioning far preferable to streets and sidewalks that fry feet as quickly as eggs.

The arid, rocky, cactus-laden land that Arizona is perhaps best known for lies mostly in the southern part of the state, where temperatures can surpass 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Over 370 miles of that land stretches across the border to Mexico, which for years migrants have attempted to traverse at great risk. From 2000 to 2010, the remains of 1,755 people have been found scattered throughout this desert; individuals that succumbed to dehydration, starvation, or sun exposure. Despite the dangers, migrants from Central America continue to cross into the southwestern United States; either desperate or determined to seek out relatives, work, or refuge from violence. An average of over 500,000 migrants have been apprehended in the last five years alone by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The presence of families and minors at the southern border—and the government’s punitive response to them—has drawn media attention of late; increasing pressure on policy makers and human rights advocacy groups alike to find real, cogent solutions.

Earlier this year, a federal judge found four volunteers from the humanitarian aid organization “No More Deaths” guilty of entering the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Arizona without a permit and leaving behind food and water—both of which qualify as misdemeanor offenses. The volunteers explained that the food and water was left behind for migrants that often cross through the area, and that they failed to obtain and sign a permit because the wording stipulates individuals may not leave behind food, water, or medical supplies. The volunteers, whose legal battle is ongoing, face $500 in fines and up to six months in federal prison. Several other No More Deaths volunteers face similar indictments. The response to these humanitarian efforts, led by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona, calls into question the United States’ already controversial approach to immigration policy.

An event at Columbia Law School earlier this month, “Sanctuary Law: Can Religious Liberty Protect Immigrants?” featured an all-female panel—Lizbeth Mateo, Winnie Varghese, Amy Gottlieb, and Rose Cuison Villazor. The women discussed whether or not, and how, U.S. policy that protects the religious freedom of citizens can be used to aid migrants arriving in the southwest.

Back, from left to right: Winnie Varghese, Katherine Franke, Matthew Engelke, Amy Gottlieb, Lizbeth Mateo. Front: Liz Boylan, Rose Cuison Vilazor.

Lizbeth Mateo, an attorney and immigrant rights activist, offered an interesting and unique perspective into the plight of migrants along the southwestern border. She currently represents several migrants in the custody of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Their cause, she said, is near and dear to her heart—because she herself is an undocumented immigrant.

Whenever Mateo visits a client or represents one in court, she runs the risk of being arrested and detained in an ICE detention center. But the gamble, she says, is worth it. Her clients, after all, have risked everything to get here: their lives, their freedom, their wellbeing—what right has she to fear, when her clients have so much on the line?

While posing compelling arguments for migrants’ need of legal representation, Mateo and her fellow panelists make it clear that it is only half the battle. Currently, California and New Mexico are the only states along the border of Mexico with sanctuary laws—that is, “laws, ordinances, regulations, resolutions, policies or other practices that obstruct immigration enforcement and shield criminals from ICE.” These laws make it difficult for ICE to issue or complete detainers, and can protect undocumented immigrants for a time. Arizona, however, has no such laws.

In lieu of sanctuary counties and towns, migrants have found protection in churches. Although ICE agents are not legally barred from entering a church or detaining someone residing in a church, a 2011 Obama-era policy still in effect deems churches “sensitive locations” in which ICE may not engage in enforcement actions unless there are exigent circumstances or prior approval has been obtained. This grey area has provided many undocumented immigrants a home of sorts; a place where they can convene with loved ones, receive aid from local nonprofits and aid organizations, and stage their fight against deportation.

That fight can be a long one. Some, such as Edith Espinal, a client of Mateo’s, have spent over 500 days in sanctuary seeking support from local and state representatives. Edith, an undocumented immigrant and mother of two U.S. citizens, has yet to be visited by any of the elected officials her legal team has reached out to. Without a personal appeal to policy makers, Mateo worries that sanctuary will never be truly guaranteed to her clients. “We need a safety net for these families,” she said to a packed lecture room at Columbia Law, “A safety net is not just a church, it is the guarantee that someone can leave the church without risking being deported the next day.”

In 1993, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The act, which was drafted largely in response to a controversial Supreme Court decision in 1990, served as a robust protection of the religious liberties of U.S. citizens. Katherine Franke, one of the event’s organizers and Columbia Law School’s Faculty Director of the Law, Rights, and Religion Project, explained that the act was originally intended to protect religious minorities—”non-normative, non-majoritarian religions”—from the impact of laws that “may not on their face infringe on religious freedoms, but do in practice.” Theoretically, RFRA could be extended to situations in which individuals in border states wish to offer their private residences as sanctuaries, volunteers wish to leave food and water in the desert as an act of faith, or where the deportation of an undocumented immigrant severs a deeply important religious connection to a community, religious leader, or family member.

While at first these extensions of RFRA may seem a promising relief for the many thousands of migrants seeking refuge in the southern United States, its use in this manner also poses a great risk to other kinds of individual freedoms. In June of 2014, the Supreme Court held that RFRA allows for-profit corporations the ability to withhold health coverage of medications and services that violate their owners’ religion; something praised by conservatives (Burwell v Hobby Lobby Stores, INC). Could it be that RFRA, if used to serve an arguably socially liberal agenda, would thereby arm a more conservative one? Panelists Amy Gottlieb, Rose Cuison, and Reverend Winnie Varghese attempted to answer exactly that question. Their consensus, however, is that we simply cannot know. Yes, said Villazor, RFRA could be used to protect immigrants; but there is good reason for concern that strengthening legal, faith-based arguments will bolster “the other side’s” efforts to exclude, subjugate, and discriminate. Reverend Varghese similarly felt that there is no need for a value outside of our own, national identity. “What we should be fighting for is the Constitution, I think,” Varghese said.

Many faiths are founded on or around a religious obligation to help those in need. It is understandable, then, that advocates might use religion as a lightning rod—an ignition of action, a channel for outrage—in their efforts to shield undocumented immigrants from deportation, to preserve family units, and to rescue migrants from brutal, untimely deaths. And while organized religions and personal beliefs deserve adequate protection under the law, the relationship may rightfully end there. This theoretical dilemma regarding RFRA is reminiscent of a Greek myth, in which a young Pandora stumbled upon an artifact that held more than she had bargained for. In the end, blurring the lines between church and state to serve one purpose—however good and holy—may put so much else we hold dear in jeopardy.


By Kyoko Thompson, by RightsViews Staff Writer

Effective Human Rights: Between Critique and the Non-ideal Realities of Practice

By Professor Danielle Celermajer, RightsViews guest writer and author of The Prevention of Torture


In recent years, human rights, understood as a form of transformative practice, have been attacked from both left and right. On the right, human rights are increasingly framed as weapons in the arsenal of a liberal internationalist agenda, designed to weaken national security and national identity. On the left, insofar as they fail to attend to the structural underpinnings of violations, human rights are, if not a cover for neoliberalism, then at least complicit in its expansion.  For human rights advocates, the question of how best to respond to critics from the right is largely a political and strategic one, a matter of defending territory, building alliances, and working out appropriate framing for campaigns. Responding to critics from the left is less a matter of altering the outward face of human rights than of turning inwards to critically reflect on the orientations, assumptions, logics and strategic toolkit of human rights.  

The question of what doing this entails is what inspired me to develop an experimental project on the prevention of torture.  Along with an inter-disciplinary and international team, I conducted research on ‘the root causes of torture’, with a particular focus on  the police and armed police in Nepal and the police and military in Sri Lanka. On the basis of this research, and with a particular focus on the factors within security sector organizations that created the conditions for torture to occur and persist, we then sought to develop and pilot preventative strategies that sought to address some of torture’s root causes by effecting systemic organizational change. To be clear, the type of torture we were interested in was not the spectacular torture that largely attracts media and public attention, but the habitual torture that takes place as a matter of course in places of detention throughout the world: the beatings, the humiliation of detainees that happens as a matter of course.

Undertaking a project of this type is challenging and fraught practically, conceptually and ethically. If, however, we believe that what drives and sustains torture is more than malevolent intention or political ideology, either on the part of direct perpetrators or those higher up, then we need to step in close to capture the actual factors – structural, systemic, procedural and cultural – that authorize, incentivize, legitimate, facilitate, and create opportunities for torture to occur. In fact, one of our findings was that, contrary to the way we tend to think about the structure of authority in states where torture is endemic, in many cases, torture does not emit from the commands of higher ups in an imagined vertical chain of command. Rather, it emerges from a more complex set of interacting factors distributed across an ecology that comprises the political system, the criminal justice system, the broader culture and society, dominant ideologies, and the organizations where torture occurs.

This does not mean that individuals don’t matter, or that we should cease holding them responsible (and criminally liable) for their role in the authorization and enactment of torture; but it does mean that when it comes to developing effective strategies for prevention, focusing on the choices or orientations of individuals without attending to the contexts that condition such choices and orientations will always fall short. As I argue in The Prevention of Torture: An Ecological Approach, keeping the reasons for punishing perpetrators distinct from the question of what is effective by way of preventing torture both protects the integrity of the logic of punishment, and allows us to examine the question of prevention without being compelled by the ethics of individual responsibility.

A further key argument I make in the book is that, while necessary, formal law (not only criminal law, but also laws seeking to effect systemic change), is far from sufficient when it comes to bringing about the type of wide-ranging and sustainable institutional reform required to prevent torture. In their recent comprehensive empirical comparative study of different approaches to torture prevention, Carver and Handley make a similar finding. They measure both the effect of particular types of interventions (like changing conditions of detention), and the effect of laws requiring those intervention, and they find that the latter fares far more poorly. The problem is that the reliance on law as a steering mechanism has dominated the human rights world for so long that we now find ourselves ill equipped, in terms of knowledge and skills, to develop other, potentially more effective tools for institutional transformation.

In our torture prevention project, we drew on literature from public health and organizational change theory and practice to think through and try out other ways of shifting entrenched norms, behaviors and systems. I would certainly not claim that we were successful in implementing strategies that prevented torture in our target sites; but our work did suggest a number of approaches, as well as a framework for researching and mapping the factors that cause and condition torture that will, I hope, prove invaluable as others take up what remains a daunting challenge.

Does this provide a response to the left critics who contend that human rights, as an approach, is incapable of addressing the structural underpinnings of violations? Well, it depends on what you mean by structural underpinnings. If you mean ‘global capitalism’ or ‘neoliberalism’, then clearly not. But if our role as scholars is to provide practitioners with frameworks and tools that they can take back into the field to do the critical work of prevention, pointing to invisible and unreachable forces like the structure of the economy is unlikely to prove helpful. As ‘structural practice-oriented’ human rights scholars, we need to think about structural underpinnings in a more expansive way. That means attending to the meso-level factors – the various structures and processes of the different systems within which torture is embedded. Learning how to identify these and then change them will be critical to effectively preventing torture.


Danielle Celermajer is a Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney. Her publications include Sins of the Nation and the Ritual of Apology (Cambridge University Press 2009) and The Prevention of Torture: An Ecological Approach (Cambridge University Press, 2018).  She is currently director of the Multispecies Justice Project at the University of Sydney.

FGM- A Human Rights Issue?

As awareness of female genital mutilation (FGM) grows in the United States, activists are increasingly trying to reframe the practice as a Human Rights issue. That was the message Maryum Saifee, Aissata Camara, Maryah Haidery, and Shelby Quast passionately imparted when they spoke to a packed room of Columbia students and community members last week.

According to the World Health Organization, FGM includes “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” The practice, which takes many forms, is done to control women’s sexuality, has zero health benefits, and can lead to lifelong health issues, including increased risk during childbirth, trauma, and even death. While FGM is more common in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, it is also practiced in North America, Europe, Latin America and Oceania. The WHO estimates that over 200 million women around the world have been cut.

While FGM has been practiced for centuries, there has recently been a renewed interest in the issue in the United States. In 2017, a federal prosecutor in Michigan brought charges, using a 1996 law passed by congress banning FGM, against two doctors and a clinic manager for performing the practice on at least seven girls. After hearing the arguments, the judge ruled that the Federal law banning FGM was unconstitutional because congress did not have the power to make the law in the first place. The case will be brought to a higher court later this year.

Shelby Quast is America’s Director of Equality Now, an NGO that strives for gender equality, and has been involved in the case. She says that while she was disappointed with the judge’s ruling, “the case brought media attention. It’s not just happening ‘over there’, it’s here too. The case has allowed survivors to elevate their platform, and it’s not over yet.”

One of the main themes the activists spoke to was their effort to re-frame the issue. For too long FGM has been thought of as a cultural practice or a medical issue, and as a consequence many human rights groups have avoided taking up the cause. Maryum Saifee, a SIPA alumni, FGM survivor, and career diplomat with the US Foreign Service, urged those gathered to think about the issue more as a form of gender-based violence or as a part of the Me Too movement. “When people ask if we should prosecute the doctor or those involved” she said, “I think, ‘if this were incest, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.’”

Maryah Haidery is an activist, a survivor of FGM, and a member of the Sahiyo organization which seeks to end the practice among the Dawoodi Bohra community of Western India. She said some activists are reluctant to take up the issue because they are afraid it would offend Islamic religious leaders, who are, incorrectly, assumed to be the perpetrators of the practice. However, as she, pointed out, FGM is not condoned by the Qu’ran, and despite popular belief, there are numerous religious decrees by learned Imams denouncing the practice.  “Human rights must apply to all humans,” she said, “not just those in the West.”

While the activists all spoke to the need for a wider conversation about FGM, they also warned against the inclusion of anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant messages in the struggle. “We don’t want a backlash against our community,” said Haidery. “That’s one reason I was reluctant to speak out at first. These are our mothers, they are not monsters.”

Part of the problem is that FGM is still thought of as something that only happens in Africa and Asia, but in fact over 500,000 women in the United States are thought to have undergone the practice or at risk of being cut. “It was treated as an African issue, but it is not just Africa, it is a global issue,” Aissata Camara, the co-founder and executive vice president of the There Is No Limit foundation and FGM survivor, pointed out. “FGM affects black women, brown women, white women, rich women, poor women, Muslim women, Christian women, immigrant women – everyone is affected.”

As an example, the speakers pointed to Rene Bergstrom, who was three years old when a Christian doctor in the American mid-west removed her clitoris. As she recently wrote in The Guardian, “I witnessed Christian religions declaring masturbation a sin, some Christian leaders and doctors recommending circumcision to prevent it, physicians carrying out the practice and our American culture first accepting this form of sexual abuse and then denying it ever occurred.” While reliable data is hard to come by, it is likely that some other white American women have also undergone the process.

Looking to the future, the speakers all highlighted the importance of good laws. “Laws can bring the issue to the fore and puts it under the spotlight where it becomes much harder to defend,” explain Quast. “But it’s also very important that the laws work for the communities involved instead of targeting them.” Haidery revealed that in her conversations with mothers in the Dawoodi Bohra community many say privately they don’t want their daughters to be cut, but it is instead communal pressure that leads them to go through with the process. “Having a law against it gives these women an out,” she says. “They can just say, ‘I wish I could have my daughter cut, but I don’t want to go to jail.’”

There is still much to be done when it comes to ending the practice of FGM. Towards the end of the conversation, the activists urged audience members to educate themselves on the issue and pursue creative solutions. Camara mentioned she was working with salon owners and make-up artists to come up with ways to bring the issue up with their clients. “Knowledge is power,” she says. “Educate yourself. Break the silence. Find your talent, and join in.”


By James Courtright, RightsViews Staff Writer

Financing the SDGs, Privatization, and Human Rights: A Conversation with Jeffrey Sachs and Philip Alston

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are a plan of action designed with the intent to eradicate poverty “in all its forms and dimensions” and establish universal world peace by 2030 in order to move towards a more sustainable future. On January 30, Columbia welcomed Philip Alston and Jeffrey Sachs to speak on the issue of “Financing the SDGs, Privatization, and Human Rights.” The event was co-sponsored by the Columbia Center on Sustainable Development, the SIPA MPA in Development Practice Program, the ISHR, RightsLink, and the Human Rights Institute. Sachs is the Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General on the SDGs and Alston is the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights.

To begin the conversation about the intersection of the SDGs, Human Rights, and the increasing problem of privatization in the achievement of the SDGs, the moderator asked Alston and Sachs about their opinions on the ways in which the SDG and Human Rights frameworks converge and diverge in terms of their goals and objectives. Both men agreed that the basic concepts of the two are incredibly similar, Alston stating that human rights aims to eliminate poverty and promote general equality and a range of other issues addressed in the SDGs. Rhetorically, said Sachs, the SDGs take the same perspective that the Human Rights movement has always taken since the establishment of the UDHR in 1948. The first UN decade for development began in 1961 and stated its goals in the language of economic and social human rights, he said.

However, said Alston, the human rights language in the SDGs are treated more like “token references” and “in practice, there has been a greater division in efforts to promote the SDGS…while also promoting respect for human rights.” Sachs argued that this is likely because human rights tend to be downplayed in the negotiating process to account for countries like China and the US rejecting references to human rights in the development context. Human Rights language adds a “measure of intellectual and moral discipline and harder edge to this” than states wish to place on the sustainable agenda. Ultimately, said Sachs, this is rooted in power: poverty is a terrible barrier but we cannot realize these rights because the conditions to realize them are about who has power and how it is used.

When it comes to financing the SDGs, there is an incredible budget gap; we are not on track to meet the 2030 agenda. Sachs believes that the basic problem with financing is that in low income countries, “the money is just not available to do even the most rudimentary things.”

On average, he estimated that the US can devote $18,000 per capita per year to development like health and education whereas a poor country may only have $160 per capita. This stark contrast is why he believes that the richer world ought to help pay for the poorer world to be able to implement the development goals that the SDGs aspire to. At the global level, he argues for international transfers and taxes beyond mere development assistance, which averages only 0.3% of the income of rich countries. “There is no global community,” said Sachs. We need international transfers of at least 2-4% as part of the international scene for financing the SDGs.

Alston added that there is an increasing trend towards privatization over public financing. Governments are trying to outsource their responsibilities inspired by the philosophy of “You’re on your own. Don’t think the government is there to help you.” He offered the example of the privatization on transportation in the UK, where all of the state except for London runs solely on private systems. These private companies make the decisions on where and when to run transport and overcharge customers, making it too expensive for low income people to even get to basic locations like their employment or hospitals. Overall, Alston said that “we see systemic outsourcing of what used to be seen as human rights obligations that governments held.”

Sachs added that we need to map out what things should be private and public. When it comes to anything that we generally want universally applied, he said the first thing that must be initiated is public financing. Universality is key, he stressed. We cannot have competitive private infrastructure because infrastructure is something that needs to be equal for all. Development goods like health care are based on values; thus we should be publicly financing them.

The SDGs as a whole do envision a role for the private sector, but that element has been overused by governments. Alston and Sachs were asked how this trend of privatization can be rolled back or realigned with the true SDGs. Quite simply, both agree that human rights can be incredibly important for realigning development values. Alston said that “we have to start pushing back against the accepted wisdom that [privatization] is the way to go.” We shouldn’t be looking to the corporate world as engines for promoting human rights. We need to start at the beginning with public financing of the rights to education and health care, to name a few. Sachs insisted that human rights language can be incredibly important in this process because it resonates and is true. Fundamentally, he said, this is a political challenge to discredit big corporations.

When it comes to financing the SDGs, there are a lot of nuanced decisions that go into where and how funds are directed. However, it is clear from our discussion with Alston and Sachs that moving away from privatization and using human rights rhetoric to support public financing is a strategy that predicts progress in SDG realization as we near 2030.


By Rowena Kosher, RightsViews Editor

The State of International Migration

An increase of migration in recent years has spurred a global conversation that asks: what is the responsibility of countries, particularly democracies, toward migrants? Relevant discussions have had real consequences on-the-ground for both migrants and states, leading to legislation which has had positive effects, and also to massive human rights violations. I examine the broad movements in worldwide migration in the past few years and pull out important themes which can be gleaned from global happenings.

The State of International Migration

According to the UN’s International Migration Report released on December 18, 2017, there has been an increase in people moving away from their country of birth by 49% since the start of the 21st century. Yet according to the 2018 World Migration Report published by the IOM, this increase in migration remains comparable to the world population; the scale of growth remains stable in regard to population.

A greater number of international migrants are moving into OECD countries to live permanently, part of a trend tracked by UN DESA. In contrast, 2017 saw refugees and asylum seekers predominately living in low- to middle-income countries, with only 16% residing in high-income countries. Thus, although high-income countries did host a majority (64%) of international migrants in 2017, with the United States hosting the largest number per country at 19% of the total, high-income countries are on average accepting the fewest number of refugees and asylees.

Despite this low acceptance rate, the need for host countries to accept refugees and asylees has increased, with the highest number of refugees recorded 22.5 million refugees and another 2.8 million awaiting adjudication of their asylum claims at the end of 2016. Since then, this number has increased to 25.4 million in 2018 because of the conflicts in Syria and Venezuela.

Migration in State Politics

According to a Yale study, in recent years nationalism, populism, and/or identity politics have led to a rise in conservative policies across Europe and in the United States, especially in the areas of immigration, affirmative action, police and criminal justice. A BBC report further showed that political parties associated with nationalism and the far-right have gathered greater support mainly due to tension around national identity and globalization. The five countries highlighted by the report with the most votes for a nationalist party include Switzerland (29%), Austria (26%), Denmark (21%), Hungary (19%), and Finland (18%). In one poignant example of how powerful these sentiments are, anti-immigration was cited as the most fundamental motivation behind Brexit by 88% of people in the UK.  In Denmark’s case, in August 2018 the country instituted a ban on face coverings, intended to prevent Muslim women from wearing the niqab or burqa. Other European countries with this ban include Belgium, Austria, France, the Netherlands, and Bulgaria. Other countries which instituted anti-immigrant legislation within the last few years include the U.S. with its 2017 move to drop the ceiling for admitting refugees from 110,000 to 50,000 (and then further reducing admissions to 45,000 for 2018); in June 2018, Hungary instituted a “Stop Soros” law intending to criminalize anyone offering aid to migrants without legal status. Then, in September of 2018, Italy increased the ease at which it could deport migrants and suspend asylum applications for individuals deemed “socially dangerous” or with any criminal history. As evident in these cases, anti-immigrant sentiment no longer exists solely in conversation and political rhetoric, but now has a strong presence in policy with real implications for migrant and refugee communities.

What’s Behind the Backlash?

At the heart of anti-immigrant sentiment is a basic fear of outsiders, which is propagated by misinformation. According to a study sponsored by the National Bureau of Economic Research, native-born citizens across the world believe that 1) there are far more immigrants in their country than in reality, 2) immigrants are more culturally and religiously different than native-born citizens, and 3) immigrants have less education, are less likely to become employed, less financially stable, and rely in greater numbers on government aid, than native-born citizens. In addition, immigrants and especially those from lower-income countries have been politically problematized and put forth as a “new” issue which requires expansive and lightning-quick responses by power-grabbing governments. Yet in the example of the United States, this is proven to be false: the U.S. hosts almost three times the number of immigrants than it did in 1970, yet it still has fewer than the 9.2 million immigrants who lived in the U.S. in 1890. The problem is evidently more one of perception. For example, in the European countries that have instituted bans on face veils, only a minute percentage of women in these countries actually wear such attire. The bans, then, are a symptom of Islamophobia and a fear of losing grasp of vaguely-defined European identity. In the previously mentioned Yale study, the authors, Craig, Rucker, and Richeson advise their readers that the core issue behind increasing conservative policies in the U.S. is an identity threat felt by “White (Christian) Americans” who are afraid of losing the status and privilege lent to them in American society by these identity factors. Fundamentally, there is a looming fear that some essential part of national identity is at risk. This fear has led countries to rush to to protect borders, as made evident in President Trump’s obsession with building a wall.

The International Responsibility of States

Much of the anti-immigration legislation is in violation of international refugee policies, which, according to the 1951 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, mandate that states must process asylum applications of persons who enter the border. States have a responsibility to protect persons with “well-founded fear” of persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, and/or membership in a particular group. States cannot, according to Article 31 of this convention, impose negative consequences against individuals who enter the country illegally but then apply for asylum, although states are allowed to limit the amount of time in which individuals may apply.

Furthermore, some anti-immigrant state policies are directly responsible for migrant deaths. In an important and devastating example, in August 2018, Malta detained three NGO rescue ships to prevent them from operating along the migration route from northern Africa and southern Europe. These rescue missions were begun as a civil society response to the extremely high death tolls along this migration route (recorded at 5,143 in 2016 by the IOM). According to the IOM report, these deaths mainly occur due to environmental conditions along the route, physical violence, risky transportation methods, and lack of safe food and water along the route. In addition to the detention of ships, Italy and Malta have both closed their ports to other NGO rescue vessels operating in the Mediterranean. By halting NGO activities, Italy and Malta have significantly increased the danger faced by migrants as they seek asylum in Europe.

Now What?

Currently, the majority of anti-immigrant, anti-refugee politics have been limited to just that – political rhetoric – yet the countries which have instituted real, problematic legislation are cause for a sobering response. The recent Global Compacts, one for migration and the other on refugees are one major step toward a unified international response to increasing migration and a greater number of refugees. The Compacts represent a productive response to the initial question I presented about the responsibility of states to migrants; this question, though, disregards the fact that migration is not a one-way process even for Global Northern countries. Perhaps a better question would be, what is the relationship between democracy and migration?  In the spirit of the Global Compacts, we should be looking at this issue with the understanding that international migration is increasing. Instead of a burden, this is an opportunity to work as an international community to reinvent a world in which mobility and globalization are inevitable and embraced for their potential.


By SaraJane Renfroe. SaraJane is an MA student in the Human Rights Studies program, focusing on migration and refugee integration.

Sterilization of People With Disabilities: Acknowledging the Past and Present History, Rhetoric, and Effects of a Harmful Practice

In the first week of 2019, a story about an Indigenous woman in Arizona giving birth while having been in a vegetative state for the past 14 years hit international headlines. It came as no surprise when investigators announced that they were looking into a “possible sexual assault.”

A person in a vegetative state, by definition, cannot consent to sex because they are non-responsive to stimuli and lack self-awareness. This woman, disabled and reliant on healthcare providers to support her quality of life was instead abused and assaulted with no recourse to defend herself.

This case is one of many that demonstrates the serious issues of sexual assault that face disabled people around the world today. According to disabilityjustice.org, people with disabilities (PWD) are three times more likely to be sexually assaulted than someone who is not disabled. 83% of women with disabilities (WWD) will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. Understanding the severity of sexual assault of PWD is vital to developing solutions to better protect the human and bodily rights of these individuals. Unfortunately, however, this problem has created another equally harming one: the sterilization of PWD, and especially WWD.

Sterilization Map from 1929

Sterilization is the surgical or non-surgical practice of ending an individual’s reproductive ability. Consensual sterilization is a relatively common practice among individuals who for personal or health reasons desire a permanent method of birth control. However, forced or nonconsensual sterilization is also a far-too-common (and still vastly legal) practice, and disproportionately inflicted upon PWD.

In 2017, Catalina Devandas Aguilar, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, released her annual report to the General Council, focused thematically on the Sexual and Reproductive Rights of Women and Girls with Disabilities. In the section entitled “Harmful and Forced Practices”, Aguilar highlights the forced sterilization of WWD worldwide, citing this as a “widespread human rights violation” that “disproportionately [subjects] [WWD] to forced and involuntary sterilization for different reasons, including eugenics, menstrual management, and pregnancy prevention,” as well as perceived protection from sexual abuse. Aguilar calls for the global community to recognize the human rights of WWD and end the harmful practice of nonconsensual sterilization.

According to the report, although the international human rights bodies have declared that sterilization of PWD is a form of discrimination, violence, torture, and other cruel and inhuman or degrading treatment, it is still legal and applied in many states worldwide. Often, this is because of court and guardian enforcement of social perceptions of PWD as either asexual or hyper sexed—either way, they are deemed unfit for parenthood, incapable of possessing sexual pleasure or desire, and would be too “burdened” by sex education or contraception use and menstrual management.

Women with disabilities are disproportionately affected by sterilization because of the fear of pregnancy and monthly menstruation. WWD are sterilized at three times the rate of the general population, meaning that of the over one billion PWD in the world today, the 1/5 of the world population that is a WWD faces serious threat of forced sterilization.

Traditional roles for women emphasize the importance of their existence as sexual beings intended for reproduction, connected to “heteronormative” and “phallocentric” interpretations of sex. Perceptions of asexuality lead to beliefs that WWD don’t have sexual or reproductive needs/rights. This contradicts empirical studies that show that PWD have the same needs with regards to sexuality and relationships as any other “able” person.

The supposed asexuality of WWD leads to the paternalistic rationalization of sterilization for “their own good.” In the landmark 1927 case Buck v Bell, Supreme Court Justice Holmes famously upheld the sterilization of involuntarily institutionalized 18 year old Buck in his quoted opinion: “three generations of imbeciles is enough.”

Even today, court rulings will justify sterilization orders to prevent the birth of a child with a disability by a WWD—regardless of if the condition is hereditary. In January of 2018, Washington state started negotiations over a form that would make it easier for a guardian (NOT the disabled person) to file for sterilization in the courts. Reporting on this, the ACLU believes that “creating this form will streamline the process and increase the number of guardians requesting the sterilization of those under their power.”

This is not to mention the warped argument that sterilization can prevent sexual assault—a view that in reality only protects the perpetrators and the aftereffect of rape: pregnancy. This argument suffers more from perceptions of WWD as being incapable caretakers or burdens than from true protection from assault.

Many PWD are infantilized, largely because most are dependent on caregivers, parents, and guardians for many aspects of their lives. This creates an immense power imbalance when it comes to decision making regarding issues of sexuality and reproduction. It is not uncommon for parents to sterilize their child for their own convenience, under the guise of protection.

In 2007, the  “Ashley Treatment” was a case in which young Ashley’s parents subjected their disabled daughter to a hysterectomy, breast bud removal, and hormone growth treatments to freeze her body in a childlike state. This was upheld by a bioethics committee because it was for “her own good”.

“Protecting people from themselves” is not far off from the eugenic rhetoric of the early 20th century, a movement that popularized the sterilization of PWD to prevent the “degeneration” of the white race. Not only is sterilization a system of sexuality control, but it is also deeply rooted in racialized and gendered constructs of human value. Between 1927 and 1957, 60,000 Americans were sterilized by virtue of being “feebleminded,” thanks to the eugenic concepts of Francis Galton, who in 1865 argued that “human mental qualities” could be manipulated and controlled through selection. The production of disability has undoubtedly been a raced, classed, and gendered cultural process—and with it has come the violation of the rights of PWD everywhere.

“Feeblemindedness” was used as a substitute term for any person that threatened the white, heteronormative structures of domination. For example, 1912 intelligence tests at Ellis Island determined “widespread feebleness” among Eastern and Southern European immigrants. Other people determined feebleminded were homosexuals, blacks, poor women “unfit to be mothers,” and “degenerates.” Sterilization of men and women was popularly practiced during chattel slavery and still today many Indigenous women are forcibly sterilized, most noted recently in Canada. The US and Canada both possess histories of the coerced sterilization of indigenous women, not to mention the fact that indigenous women are more likely to be sexaully assaulted, like the woman in the nursing home who faced the double oppression of being being both disabled and indigenous.

The continued practice and legal support of sterilization of WWD starkly contrasts most feminist or human rights-promoting rhetoric on violence against women in other areas of reproduction. We hear endless support for the right to abortion and reproductive control for women, but arguments for stopping sterilization of women with disability are almost entirely absent from the mainstream discourse. Likely, this lies in the fear that supporting not sterilizing WWD threatens the traditional messaging of pro-choice abortion rights. Thus, forced sterilization is pushed to the bottom of the advocacy platform for fear of jeopardizing the highly politicized feminist movement.

However, advocating against sterilization is as equally about choice as advocating for abortion. It is about the choice of consent, the choice of motherhood, and the choice of bodily control. This is where reproductive rights fails and reproductive justice takes over. Reproductive justice, coined by the SisterSong Collective, recognizes “not only a woman’s right not to have a child, but also the right to have children and to raise them with dignity in safe, healthy, and supportive environments.” As an intersectional approach, reproductive justice encompasses race, class, gender, and ability, thus creating space for a feminist movement that centers around all bodies, not just mainstream bodies. Including WWD in mainstream feminist and human rights discourse is our next crucial step. That is the true reproductive justice movement and the direction to go if we are to protect all women.


By Rowena Kosher

Righting Victim Participation in Transitional Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By Jalileh Garcia

Rural Women’s Human Rights: Challenges and Opportunities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

A Defense of Dignity

By Joseph Chuman, a lecturer at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights

With dark forces clouding the political horizon, both domestically and globally, defense of fundamental freedoms has become stridently urgent. While some may prophesy or lament the end time of human rights, the drumbeat of illiberalism requires an even more robust enunciation of the human rights program. Those striving to consolidate greater power in the hands of state executives may seek to swat aside human rights as an annoying manifestation of political correctness, but it is good to remember that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights emerged out of the nadir of European fascism. The response to darkness is not despair, but the bright light of civility and decency, which are conveyed most powerfully by human rights and the ideals that it reflects.

At the heart of human rights is respect for the dignity of human beings – without exception. If asked to summarize in briefest terms the purpose of the human rights program, one could probably do no better than respond by stating that the aim of human rights, whether safeguarding immunity from violation or entitling the resources necessary for human flourishing, is respect for and protection of human dignity. The Universal Declaration begins with the words. “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity…of all members of the human family…” And “dignity” is mentioned seven times as the norm that must be met for the realization of human rights, for both political and economic rights.

Despite its centrality to the human rights program, there is surprisingly little discussion about the meaning of dignity in the human rights literature. Yet its meaning is contested, and I would argue that some conceptual understandings of dignity are preferable to others, if human rights are to enjoy the strongest protection. There are at least three plausible approaches to dignity: one partially historical, a second, philosophical, a third, cultural.

Professor Chuman teaching in the MA Program

Professor Chuman teaching in the MA Program

Two recent books, both brief but scholarly in their treatments of dignity, highlight differences. Jeremy Waldron, University Professor of Law at NYU in Dignity, Rank and Rights, argues that dignity, understood as a universal concept, did not start that way.  Examination of dignity’s historical genealogy reveals that it has been associated with a person’s social status or bearing. In Roman times, dignity referred to honor, privileges, or deference due to a person issuing from rank or office. According to Waldron, the dignity due a person of high rank underwent a transvaluation in late-eighteenth century romantic poetry, wherein such dignity associated with aristocracy was seen as bogus or superficial, and it was the person of low rank who became dignified. This is but one example of the universalization of the concept of dignity, which underlies its usage today. So, in Waldron’s words, “the modern notion of human dignity involves an upward equalization of rank, so that we may now try to accord to every human being something of the dignity rank, and expectation of respect that was formerly accorded nobility.” In the realm of dignity, we are all aristocrats now.

A contrasting view is presented by Harvard Professor of Government, Michael Rosen, in his work, Dignity. Rosen elaborates on the more conventional position that modern notions of dignity can best be traced to the Enlightenment, especially the ethics of Immanuel Kant. For Kant, dignity is an inherent attribute of all human beings exclusively in that we are rational agents. For Kant, ethics and the supreme moral law, the Categorical Imperative, emerges from reason, which in its transcendental freedom postulates moral laws to which human beings choose to be obedient. It is this autonomy which also dictates that the human person is an end-in-himself, whose humanity requires respect. Kant further affirms that all things subject to our use possess a value, which is relative to the one doing the evaluating and to context. But human beings alone possess dignity, which is absolute. For Kant, again, dignity is universal, and has a Platonic resonance that isolates it from questions of social contingency. Dignity is a thoroughly ahistorical concept. Both Waldron and Rosen elaborate with extensive analyses and applications of these variant derivations for dignity – social rank, and transcendent universalism.

One might argue that the placement of dignity in the idea of social status and as historically malleable renders it less secure and more open to manipulation as social currents themselves change. Yet I would maintain that grounding the origins of human rights in these two respective approaches makes little practical difference. The Universal Declaration by intent presents no foundation for the human rights it proclaims. The defense of its origins never need rise to the surface. Rather the Universal Declaration affirms a consensus that, once accepted, can find pragmatic application in the world of political strife and struggle.

However, there is a third conception of dignity that embeds the notion in a cultural context. As such, it is radically different, and I believe can be erosive of the human rights project, especially in the contemporary environment characterized  by increased nationalism, parochialism and a resurgence of group rights articulated within the framework of religio-ethnic particularisms. It is an expression of dignity very much subject to social contingencies.

Professor Chuman teaching in the MA Program

Professor Chuman teaching in the MA Program

Dignity in this sense can be defined as a felt attribute constructed out of a person’s fittedness to her or his distinctive cultural milieu. It can serve as an index of particularist identity. This understanding is most evident in the relationship of human rights to the religions. In various instantiations of religiously grounded rights, there need not be a contradiction between human rights and religious precepts. The doctrine central to Judaism and Christianity, that the human being is created in the divine image and all people share a kinship as children of God, can corroborate the value of dignity by rendering the human being a sacred component of the cosmic order. But at the same time, divine command as delivered to different faith communities can impose a highly differentiated notion of dignity that undermines its universal character.

For example, Professor of Religion, David Novak, of the University of Toronto, notes that in Judaism human dignity emerges from the capability of being able to respond to God’s commands. Needless to say this would not do for an atheist or freethinker. But beyond that it suggests that one’s dignity is tied to one’s identity within a specific cultural milieu, for divine command cannot be abstract or devoid of particular substance.

Take for example the issue of male circumcision, which periodically become an issue of debate within the human rights community. Defenders of the need to respect dignity as put forward by Waldron and Rosen, might argue that male circumcision is an affront to the dignity of the child undergoing the procedure because it is a violation of his autonomy, is painful and in addition is essentially irreversible. However those relating dignity to the confirmation of identity within a community, and herein a religious community united under divine law, might argue that not to circumcise is a violation of the dignity of the child. It robs the individual of a dignity-informing place as a member of the community, and therefore deprives him of a mainstay of his very identity.

Such a culture-bound definition of dignity clearly has its merits and can be argued on its own terms. Yet, from a human rights perspective it may readily feed into a vicious form of cultural relativism and summoned as an argument to defend that relativism, thus undercutting the essential universalism required for human rights to be sustained as such. While remaining sensitive to the complex elements of culture and identity, on balance it is hard to see this as a good thing.

We are at an historical moment when reactionary forces are on the march and minority groups suffer greater denigration and too often find themselves the victims of xenophobia and scapegoating. Tragically and paradoxically, the very sensitivity to cultural difference which argues for tolerance has metastasized into a highlighting of difference characterized by fear and hate-mongering. It is time when those committed to human rights need to recommit themselves to the defense of human dignity — as a universal value — wherever it is oppressed or violated, and do so without apology.

Joseph Chuman is an adjunct professor of The Institution for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University.  He has taught the introductory course and an elective in Religion and Human Rights since 2001.